One Hundred Years later, State and Revolution remains one of the most beloved works of Lenin. Yet what can we learn from the attempts to implement its vision in the Russian Revolution?
State and Revolution is one of the most beloved works of Lenin, and for good reason. It is perhaps the finest work of Marxology, where digging through the notebooks of Marx and Engels is done not to prove an academic thesis but to prove an important political point: that the proletariat cannot simply inherit the bourgeois state and use it to build socialism, but must smash it in order to create a new state based on workers rule. Lenin also utilizes Marx and Engels to discern how this state is fundamentally different to the bourgeois state, drawing from Marx’s work on the Paris Commune especially. From these conclusions Lenin takes a political gamble. His party leads an insurrection to overthrow the provisional government around the call for “all power to the Soviets”, calling for a new state in Russia based on the power of the Soviets, or regional councils of workers and soldiers that were being formed both spontaneously and by party militants.
For Lenin, “all power to the Soviets” only made sense as a political slogan and plan for action when the Bolsheviks and those agreeing with their general programme had a majority in the Soviets, which in a sense were alternative “parliaments” for the working class. When the Bolsheviks were able to build a majority coalition of their party, left-SRs, anarchists and Menshevik Internationalists in the Soviets who wanted the overthrow of the government, an end to the war, and land to the peasants then “all power to the Soviets” was a slogan that made perfect sense.
So for the Bolsheviks, State and Revolution provided a sort of initial guide to how they would approach the revolution and rebuild society. The Soviets would take state power with a revolutionary programme and the working class would be armed as the military and police were demolished, the working class to take command. This would eventually happen in Russia, but initially the Soviets and the parties working within them (the Bolsheviks being the leading party) had to figure out how to run a country and develop a proletarian rather than bourgeois civil society.
Before delving into how the ideals of State of Revolution came into contradiction with the concrete realities of the revolution and what one must learn from that, I will go over the basic arguments of the book, which mostly come from the works of Marx and Engels. For Lenin, the state is defined as a “product of the irreconcilability of classes”, meaning that as long as classes exist there will be some sort of state which ensures the reproduction of those class relations with the ruling class having political hegemony. The state is not a neutral territory where classes can “reconcile” but ultimately “a power standing above society and alienating itself more and more from it”. Why is the state alien to society? Because it is a protection racket for the minority of rich capitalists, not a means for the majority of society to actually exercise control over politics. It creates “order”, but this order is strictly a bourgeois law and order that codifies the domination of the ruling class.
Further, the state is a “special body of armed men”, the military and police, who are able execute the rule of law. Lenin mostly seems to find this important because it shows that the state is based on force. It is based not just through force, but force as executed by a special body, i.e. a separate section of the social division of labor (cops and military). The abolition of the police and armed forces, is the destruction of that part of the bourgeois state which defends and underwrites that state-form’s character as being above society; alienated from humanity as a whole.
The state is also described by Lenin as an “instrument” through which the ruling class exploits the oppressed class. This has been criticized as seeing the state as a mere instrument that classes can simply wield. But this is taking the metaphor too seriously. The point is that as long as there are class divisions, state power will exist because there will be need for a body that ensures capitalist norms of order than allow the ruling class to operate (or a body to suppress the remnants of the capitalist order if a workers state). Lenin doesn’t exactly go deep into the structural mechanics of why the state, while aiming to appear to be neutral, ultimately serves the interests of the ruling class. Part of the reason why is that the state is a tribute/tax/rentier taking organization and reproduces by taxing capitalists; therefore it has an interest in capitalist development being as successful as possible. The state also connects a strong economy to a strong military, the military bureaucracy wishing to project the hegemony of a capitalist state as dominant in the world market. In general, the state reproduces the social division of labor, and it reproduces a capitalist social division of labor. Therefore the capitalist or bourgeois state cannot act in a way that doesn’t allow for the reproduction of capitalism, and essentially provides the framework through which this can occur.
Lenin goes on to argue that classes can be abolished (though without saying at a national or international level), hence ending the social antagonisms that lead to a state existing. Yet there will be a transitional state, or dictatorship of the proletariat, that will replace the old capitalist state, based on the power of the workers. This state is sometimes called a “semi-state” because it is a state in the process of overthrowing the very foundations upon which it is based. Engels is quoted as saying “The government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by that conduct the processes of production. The state is not “Abolished”. It Withers Away.” Essentially, as the antagonisms of class divisions are transcended by communist relations, the state loses its power as a coercive force over society and simply becomes a means of administering society in harmonious way. This is contrary to the anarchist notion that the state itself will be abolished in an act of insurrection, or the Maoist notion that the withering of the state must be pushed along through “Cultural Revolution” or class struggle under socialism. While it is true this process will require struggle against bureaucrats, because the proletariat holds state power it can fight bureaucracy through transforming its actual roots, the social division of labor, and not just host purges to replace them with different bureaucrats.
This general outline, backed up quite sufficiently by quotes from Marx and Engels, is primarily an attack on the Social-Democrats like Kautsky and Bernstein who deny the need for a violent overthrow. While Lenin was a longtime admirer of Kautsky, by 1917 he had come to see Kautsky as not sufficiently stressing the need to smash the bourgeois state in earlier works like The Social Revolution and the Day After (1903). Kautsky instead saw the proletariat’s party essentially becoming a majority in parliament, and then making parliament into the main ruling body of the state. For Lenin, bourgeois parliament was simply not a fit form of representation for the working class. Yes, work in it, but do so to destroy it was his position. Lenin goes as far to say that violent insurrection is a determining point in whether a proletarian revolution has occurred or not; at this point Lenin has no illusions of the bourgeoisie peacefully surrendering its power. This position, that it was necessary to smash the state, was not always the opinion of Lenin. It was initially Bukharin and Pannekoek who would come to convince Lenin of the correctness of this position, that it was not an anarchist deviation from Marx.
It is also an essentially correct general outline: the proletariat overthrows the bourgeois state, the proletariat becomes the new state, and this state withers away as classes whither away. Those who saw no rupture needed between the bourgeois state and proletarian state were simply reformists in the end, as they could not grasp a key element of revolution. Lenin backs up this reading using the piece Civil War in France by Marx, where the Paris Commune, considered by Marx and Engels to be a living example of the dictatorship of the proletariat, is examined.
The Commune becomes an object of study that is meant to show what kind of state will replace the bourgeois and facilitate the rule of the workers. Lenin argues the first and most important decree is the disarming of the ruling class and the arming of the workers, replacing the police and military with the armed working class. Since the state is at its core the general means of coercion, placing these means in the hands of the workers commences the smashing of the bourgeois state. Lenin also stresses the democratic nature of the Commune, pointing out how elected officials had strict term limits, recallability, and an average worker’s wage. He also argues for simplifying the process of government to the point where any worker could be called on to participate, summed up by the saying “every cook can govern.” For Lenin both parliament and the ‘parasite state’ are also wiped away, though elective and representative features still exist. It is just that the legislative and executive branch are merged and government bodies are working bodies, e.g representative-legislative with strictly subordinate executive committees.
Much of State and Revolution also comes as a response to the anarchists as well as the social-democrats. Lenin sees the anarchists idea of abolition of the state “muddled and non revolutionary” as the state is a product of the social division of labor which is not transformed overnight and cannot be left to be controlled by the servants of capital. The anarchists simply proclaim to be for the abolition of the state, but have no plan to actually abolish it. Those who simply say they will abolish the state immediately lack an understanding of the historical conditions that produced the state and lead to its existence. Many anarchists argue that simply decentralizing power will end the state, while Lenin stresses the need for centralism and unity in the proletarian state. Yet for Lenin democracy is just as important as centralism, just not sufficient on its own, and the two are not to be counterposed. One must “develop democracy to the utmost” but not separate from the actual tasks of economic transformation in the revolution. Yet while in the proletarian state democracy is developed to the utmost, Lenin cites Engels on the ‘overcoming of democracy’, stating that in a communist future the need for democratic decision making where the majority rules over the minority will no longer be needed because there will be no need for a state.
The transition to Communism is also detailed, essentially taking the schema of dictatorship of the proletariat -> lower phase communism -> high phase communism from the the Marx’s Gothakritik. These sections essentially summarize how the development of communism from the ashes of capitalism will gradually make the state a relic of the past, replacing the rule of law via a coercive mechanism with the force of social norm in a real human community. Yet it also explains this will be a protracted process where elements of capitalism will remain and be phased out as possible. Lenin does mention the problems of bureaucracy, but acts as if simply putting them on an average salary will suffice to keep them in check.
So how does this all hold up today? First of all are the basics of Lenin’s theory of the state. The State under Capitalism is essentially a holdover of the centralized absolutist state renovated to meet the needs of capitalism and democratized to the extent popular struggles have pushed it to do so. That the state serves the ruling class is obvious, but the state also performs certain communal functions for society that cannot be left to private interests. It also has a military function that can’t be reduced to capital accumulation, as even a proletarian state would still need a military to defend itself from capitalist invasion. This is not to say these functions aren’t operated in a class biased matter, but that the state cannot simply be reduced to a body of armed men that defend the interest of the ruling class. There is a non-elected bureaucracy in the state that is not entirely parasitic but necessary for the day to day running of cities for example. Until their skills are redistributed, society will still need to rely on them, similar to how the Bolsheviks had to rely on Tsarist military generals. One could say that Lenin overestimates how quickly a complete break with the bourgeois state and its bureaucracy can take place, as if the Soviets can simply pop up and replace it once they are revolutionary enough. Yet while the Soviets can make important decisions, the actual running of the state on a day to day basis will still fall to the bureaucracy if the Soviets cannot perform their function.
This is not to say that “every cook cannot govern” contrary to Lenin, but that there are real embedded problems with bureaucracy that can’t simply be dealt with through force. Specialists and bureaucrats do contain monopolies of knowledge that allows them a privileged place in society as a result of that knowledge being necessary for society. Lenin doesn’t make a plan for dealing with this, but it becomes a problem on day one when the Red Guards have to break a Civil Servant strike opposed to the new Soviet regime. The same problem exists in industry and the military, with loyalists of the old regime being relied upon to keep society running and defending the workers republic. Relying on these specialists created problems for the proletarian state, as there was no plan to phase them out and collectivize their skills, creating the basis for a “red bureaucracy” that would become a force of conservatism in the new Soviet Republic. Some system must be developed to a) observe and control the bureaucrats and b) break down their knowledge monopolies and simplify the administration to make it so that they are easily replaceable. Breaking down these knowledge monopolies involves not only technological advances but also expansion of educational opportunities for the masses.
There is also the problem of “all power to the Soviets” as the solution to the state. Soviets are councils of workers that tend to form from strike committees in cross industry mass strikes to make decisions in those particular struggles. In a way they are “united fronts of the workers movement” where all different tendencies and trades in a region unite to make large scale political decisions in a mass struggle. After the mass struggle is over, the Soviets are no longer needed, and authority returns to the trade union and political parties. So therefore soviets have a sort of transient nature; they are not standing bodies that continuously meet to make decisions in most cases. Lenin’s aim was to turn the the Soviets into such organizations that would run society. The problem was that he ignored other important aspects of the state, such as the role of political parties.
If one has no political parties to choose from in voting for candidates, or only one, the result is that Soviets or other mass democratic assemblies simply will become rubber stamp organizations for the one ruling party. This is exactly what happened in the USSR – the Soviets tried to become the state but ultimately authority fell to the Bolshevik Party. It is similar for the local councils in Cuba. Lenin says nothing about the role of political parties in the new proletarian state in his essay, but as every political regime ever has revealed, the ruling party or parties largely determine the character of the regime. While the Bolsheviks did not seize power alone (they did so in alliance with the Left-SRs), their break with the Left SRs and the crisis of war communism sending proletarians to the front meant that the Soviets simply lost their ability to act as standing bodies of authority for the working class. By the mid 1920s Bolshevik delegates would dominate the soviets, the rest having no party affiliation with other parties being banned. No parties or even party factions meant workers had no real choices in voting for a political programme, but simply voted for the personalities of those running, or who could be best directed by the party to do their job.
A key insight that Lenin misses here, ironically enough, is the importance of the party. A Soviet democracy must actually be one where democratically organized mass parties collaborate. All states are essentially party-states to some degree, but this doesn’t mean they can’t be democratic. In general, a state is only as democratic as its ruling parties are. This means the internal regime of the those parties; do the rank and file meaningfully determine policy, are factions allowed? Even in a “one party state” different factions of the party can serve as different political options that people can vote for. This opportunity closed in 1921 with the banning of party factions. The nature of the soviets in a state where one monolithic party was ruling could only be to legitimize the rule of that party, and so any hope of bringing workers into the administration of society (which was still maintained in the course of the Civil War) was lost. The role of soviets became changed not because the Bolsheviks crushed them, but because conditions of the war, loss of interparty democracy, and the betrayal of the Left-SRs who launched a terror campaign against the signing of the Brest-Litovsk treaty (which also meant the armed wing of the revolution, the cheka, would become monopolized by the Bolsheviks). Whether soviets, citizens councils, or mass assemblies, these regional decision-making bodies on their own do not ensure democratic governance. This doesn’t mean rejecting such bodies, but realistically understanding their role, and the need for political parties that are themselves member-run and democratic.
An argument often made (see Brinton’s Bolsheviks and Workers Control) is that the Party essentially betrayed the Soviets by promoting its authority against their authority, overthrowing the authentic revolution. In this narrative the Soviets are basically “destroyed” by the Bolsheviks. What happened was moreso that the Soviets were hollowed out and the Bolshevik Party was the only force left to fill in the gap of authority. Ultimately, for the soviets to have governed, it would have been in partnership with a political party/parties and not in opposition to them. It is not possible to remove political parties from councils without banning parties outright, which would simply be a way to destroy programmatic politics and meaningful democracy. Political parties are not contrary to democracy, but essential for it, as no parties means no real political choices can be voted on, just personalities. Rather than looking at the question in terms of “do the Soviets govern or does the party govern” we should look at it in terms of “how will the parties and councils work together to ensure a government based on proletarian democracy.”
There is also the question of how useful the model of the “Soviet pyramid” for socialists governance is. To summarize, the model works where lower bodies elect delegates to regional bodies, and these delegates then elect the delegate of higher, central bodies. This idea is supposed to give more power to lower regional bodies but instead allows a single party to more easily concentrate power within the councils. This is because of a mediary regional council elects the central council, which creates a degree of separation between the voters and the central council. This ‘pyramid’ can have even more layers of mediation between the voters and the central gov, increasingly alienating the voters from their representatives. A more simple way to go would be to have local councils elected by locals and a central council elected universally that local councils are responsible to. While Soviet pyramid model is favored by Trotskyists, Council Communists, and Anarchists as “more democratic” it is actually less democratic.
An example of the “Soviet Pyramid” model from Cornelius Castoriadis, 1972.
This is not to dismiss the importance of councils of workers and local assemblies of governance in the revolution. As Engels pointed out in a footnote to Marx’s 1850 Address to the Communist League, “local and provincial government” can become “the most powerful lever of the revolution”. He cites the example of the local assemblies and communes of governance in the French Revolution, which were able to fall within the general laws set by the national assembly while pushing the revolution forward. It was these types that were first destroyed in the Thermidor according to Engels. Furthermore Engels argues that such “local and provincial governance does not “stand in contradiction to political, national centralization.” Rather than seeing a strict dichotomy between the locals and central governance Engels sees them both playing a cooperative role.
There is no doubt that such organizations like the Soviets becoming hollowed out signified a defeat for the Russian Revolution. Yet one must understand that the power of the Soviets ultimately failed because the party regime failed, and both must work together to be truly democratic. Organizations like the citizens councils of the Paris Commune and the Russian Soviets where the masses partake in government are essential for any kind of “proletarian civil society” to exist. The point is that we cannot count on the spontaneous activities of councils to solve the problem of governance; they are not a solution to bureaucracy on their own.
Of course one cannot blame the failures of the Bolsheviks to overcome bureaucracy on Lenin’s lack of clear vision or a theoretical blunder. Ultimately the question of bureaucracy comes down to class struggle, the battle for proletarians to control officials and specialists through democratic measures. Yet Russian proletarians faced a situation of being in a peasant dominated country with a lack of modernization, hoping their revolution would spread internationally. To quote Rosa Luxemburg: “It would be demanding something superhuman from Lenin and his comrades if we should expect of them that under such circumstances they should conjure forth the finest democracy, the most exemplary dictatorship of the proletariat and a flourishing socialist economy. By their determined revolutionary stand, their exemplary strength in action, and their unbreakable loyalty to international socialism, they have contributed whatever could possibly be contributed under such devilishly hard conditions. The danger begins only when they make a virtue of necessity and want to freeze into a complete theoretical system all the tactics forced upon them by these fatal circumstances, and want to recommend them to the international proletariat as a model of socialist tactics.”
Lenin wrote more about issues of bureaucracy in his latter years, after it became clear the vision of Soviet democracy was not the immediate outcome of the revolution. Instead the regime of the NEP, closer economically to Lenin’s original plans, took place of the unfeasible attempt at ‘war communism’ and Lenin began in his last days to try and solve the problem of bureaucracy. Ultimately, a full on Thermidor with the rise of Stalinism ensured these issues would never be properly dealt with, the NEP society that was the ultimate outcome of the revolution being destroyed in favor of a militaristic bureaucratic industrialism.
While State and Revolution is a masterpiece of communist theory, it has certain limitations that have been shown by the historical attempts to apply its ideas. It does provide a useful framework for thinking about the state, emphasizing the importance of its inherently class nature.What it doesn’t contain is all the answers about the complexity of the state during the transition to communism and exact answers to how one will construct the dictatorship of the proletariat. Rather than simply studying State and Revolution on its own we must study the Russian Revolution to see where its assumptions hold up, and when they don’t, why this is the case.