This post was originally published on my old blog on June 19, 2016.
The State and Revolution is the seminal text of Leninism. It was written by V.I. Lenin in 1917 and expands upon the Marxist conception of the State and its role in revolution. Using excerpts from the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Lenin explains the class nature of the State, argues that a “State” as controlled by the working class will “wither away” over time, and ruthlessly criticizes his opponents, frequently referred to as “opportunists.”
One of the most important things necessary for understanding TS&R is the terminology used by Lenin and the concepts of class as understood by Marxists. To make this article as accessible as possible, it’s worth starting at the beginning.
If you already have a background in Marxism, such as the Manifesto, feel free to skip this section and move on to “What is the State?”
Within capitalist society, everyone needs to sell something in order to buy things, including basic necessities such as food, water, shelter, and clothing. There are two main classes under capitalism, characterized by their relationship to production: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.
The bourgeoisie is the class which owns and therefore controls the “means of production,” e.g. factories, warehouses, stores, etc. The bourgeois extract profit produced by the sale of commodities created by these means of production.
People who do not possess any means of production or capital have only one thing to sell in order to sustain themselves: themselves, i.e. their labor-power, the commodity which produces value. A person rents herself to a business, giving the business access to her labor-power. She operates its means of production in exchange for a wage. These members of capitalist society constitute the proletariat.
The proletariat and the bourgeoisie have differing, opposing interests. One example is the contradiction between wages for the proletariat and profits for the bourgeoisie. Workers want their wages to be as high as possible so they can have a better quality of life and afford more things, and the bourgeois want to lower costs and make as much profit as possible to undercut their competitors. Because wages are an expense for the bourgeois and cut into their profits, and because profit is a measure of money that the proletarians could be making, this causes conflict and friction between the classes.
What results is a phenomenon referred to by Marxists as class struggle, and this is only one instance of it. The contradictions between the classes, according to Marxists, will eventually lead to their dissolution and the creation of a classless society.
What is the State?
Most people think of the State as a centralized, bureaucratic organization which exists primarily to preserve peace within a geographical region. The Marxist conception of the State is slightly different because it puts class into the equation.
The State, according to Marxist theory, grows out of class antagonisms within society. The contradictions between classes and the conflict between them necessitates the creation of an organization of force used to quell these antagonisms. Lenin, therefore, defines the State as, above all, the special organization of force used for the suppression of one class by another. It grows out of irreconcilable antagonisms between the classes. Lenin holds that the State’s very existence, the necessity for a power to quell class struggle, itself proves that these antagonisms cannot be conciliated. The State, under capitalist society, which protects private property and upholds the capitalist mode of production, is therefore an instrument wielded by the bourgeoisie to suppress the proletariat. So long as there are classes in society, a State must exist.
The State (again, an organization of force used to suppress a class) in capitalist society is wielded by the bourgeoisie to suppress the proletariat. This is called the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. The word “dictatorship” in this case does not refer to an oppressive, autocratic institution, but literally means that the bourgeoisie possesses political power and therefore dictates what happens in society.
The structure of society during a socialist revolution is called the dictatorship of the proletariat, wherein the proletariat possesses political power and uses it to suppress the bourgeoisie. This entails wresting the means of production from the bourgeoisie, suppressing counter-revolution, defending the revolution from external forces, etc. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx defines the (proletarian) state as “the state, i.e. the proletariat organized as the ruling class.” All this means is that society is structured such that the proletariat has political power and controls what happens.
Going by the strict definition of the State as defined by Marxists, a proletarian State could look very different from our usual, liberal conception of the State. Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War, for instance, could be one example of a dictatorship of the proletariat, even though it might not fit in with preconceived notions of what a socialist “state” might look like. The proletariat, organized as the ruling class, suppressed the bourgeoisie and took control of the means of production.
Lenin points out multiple times in TS&R that the proletariat cannot just take control of the presently existing bourgeois state apparatus and use it for its own purposes. The bourgeois state must be smashed and replaced with a new State constructed on the basis of proletarian power.
The bourgeois state and the proletarian state are distinct in how they structure the use of force. In order to maintain political power, the bourgeois state utilizes “special bodies of armed men,” as described by Engels, rather than “the self-acting armed organization of the population.” This is necessary because the “self-acting armed organization of the population” could not exist since the divide between classes.
“Withering Away” of the Proletarian State
Once the proletarian state possesses political power and controls the means of production, it will “wither away” over time as it suppresses the bourgeoisie and moves toward a classless society. While the state must exist while class distinctions remain, it becomes superfluous in a classless society. The use of force is no longer necessary to suppress class antagonisms, because there are no classes. Lenin includes a long quote from Engels to explain this phenomenon, a portion of which is sampled below:
As soon as there is no longer any social class to be held in subjection, as soon as class rule, and the individual struggle for existence based upon the present anarchy in production, with the collisions and excesses arising from this struggle, are removed, nothing more remains to be held in subjection — nothing necessitating a special coercive force, a state. The first act by which the state really comes forward as the representative of the whole of society — the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society — is also its last independent act as a state. State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies down of itself. The government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production. The state is not ‘abolished’. It withers away. This gives the measure of the value of the phrase ‘a free people’s state’, both as to its justifiable use for a long time from an agitational point of view, and as to its ultimate scientific insufficiency; and also of the so-called anarchists’ demand that the state be abolished overnight.” (From Anti-Düring)
If you agree with the premises behind this argument, the conclusion must follow. If the state arises from class antagonisms in society and exists for the purpose of class suppression, it must therefore exist while there are classes (even during a proletarian revolution!) and start to die off once class is abolished. Engels’ description, “the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production,” explains the change in the nature of the State very well. Lenin points out that under the dictatorship of the proletariat, the State is no longer “the State” proper, but a different kind of institution altogether.
Lenin goes further than Marx and Engels by making an attempt to describe a proletarian state and what it might look like by turning to the example of the Paris Commune, using excerpts from Marx’s the Civil War in France to describe the experience of the Commune and how it represented proletarian political power. Marxism emphasizes learning from past experiences and proletarian attempts at revolt, so Lenin uses the Commune as a kind of jumping off point. “Marx did not indulge in utopias,” wrote Lenin, “he expected the experience of the mass movement to provide the reply to the question as to the specific forms this organization of the proletariat as the ruling class would assume and as to the exact manner in which this organization would be combined with the most complete, most consistent ‘winning of the battle of democracy.'”
The Paris Commune implemented several measures to construct a centralized, bureaucratic institution that would remain accountable to the proletariat.
- “Suppression of the standing army, and the substitution for it of the armed people.”
- Delegates were elected from members of the working class (or acknowledged representatives) by universal suffrage.
- All members of the State were to be revocable at any time.
- The police was stripped of its political attributes and “turned into the responsible, and at all times revocable, agent of the Commune,” as were all administrative and judicial officials.
- Public officials were to be paid “workmen’s wages.”
- The Commune “proceeded at once to break the instrument of spiritual suppression, the power of the priests.”
- Judicial functionaries were to be elected, responsible and revocable.
Because of these measures, the State becomes much more accountable to the proletariat in a way that was not possible under liberal representative democracy. Lenin immediately points out that “the Commune, therefore, appears to have replaced the smashed state machine ‘only’ by fuller democracy: abolition of the standing army; all officials to be elected and subject to recall. But as a matter of fact this ‘only’ signifies a gigantic replacement of certain institutions of a fundamentally different type.” The dictatorship of the proletariat is the extension of democracy. The “withering away” of the state is also the “withering away” of democracy; it extends democracy further and further until it is no longer “democracy,” which implies a State, but the management of society as a regular part of everyday life.
Leninism vs. Anarchism
The State and Revolution is sometimes considered by anarchists to be a somewhat “libertarian” work. This is not particularly accurate for a couple of reasons.
While it is true that Lenin emphasizes very often the importance of the destruction of the bourgeois state, he takes issue with anarchism and his anarchist contemporaries because he believes it to be “utopian” to want to “abolish the state” all at once.
Abolishing the bureaucracy at once, everywhere and completely, is out of the question. It is a utopia. But to smash the old bureaucratic machine at once and to begin immediately to construct a new one that will make possible the gradual abolition of all bureaucracy — this is not a utopia, it is the experience of the Commune, the direct and immediate task of the revolutionary proletariat.
We are not utopians, we do not “dream” of dispensing at once with all administration, with all subordination. These anarchist dreams, based upon incomprehension of the tasks of the proletarian dictatorship, are totally alien to Marxism, and, as a matter of fact, serve only to postpone the socialist revolution until people are different. No, we want the socialist revolution with people as they are now, with people who cannot dispense with subordination, control, and “foremen and accountants”.
Lenin does not advocate the immediate implementation of a non-hierarchical society following the destruction of the bourgeois state apparatus. He believes that it’s necessary to have a bureaucratic government and a centralized State, just that the structure of this State must be radically different, formed such that the proletariat retains political power. This is in direct contrast to anarchist values of anti-authoritarianism and decentralized management and structure of society. Ultimately, Marxism and Anarchism have the same goal: the establishment of the communist society, devoid of classes, money, and the State. Where they differ is the means by which they seek to achieve this society: Lenin advocates the construction of a proletarian state which will naturally wither away and Anarchism advocates the abolition of the state and the construction of communism (or a similarly non-hierarchical society) directly.
At this point, the reader may notice that the ideas expressed by Lenin are very different from what most people think of when they hear “Leninism”: a top-down bureaucracy ruled by party officials with little to no democracy present whatsoever. In fact, Lenin advocated the extension of democracy beyond what was possible under liberal, bourgeois democracy.
Lenin is most well-known for his participation in the Russian Revolution and the formation of the Soviet Union, which has been the subject of countless heated debates and the recipient of propaganda and slander from all sides. It can be difficult to discern fact from fiction and understand the reality of the Soviet experiment. Whatever your interpretation of the Soviet Union may be, it’s important to keep in mind the extreme material conditions under which the creation of the Soviet Union took place and how they may have affected its deviation from the ideas and wishes originally held by Lenin. It’s important to separate the ideas from the person and keep in mind that Lenin’s role changed drastically following the Russian Revolution.
The State and Revolution remains an important work in Marxism, and an indispensable read that any socialist or person interested in socialism/Marxism should look into. Keep in mind, however, that this summary is just one person’s interpretation, and an incomplete one at that. The best way to understand it fully is to read it for yourself.