Lenin’s The State and Revolution is one of the most important books he ever wrote, a restatement and rediscovery of the revolutionary understanding of the state pioneered by Marx and Engels. Andreas Chari welcomes a new edition and explains its continuing relevance today. 

VI Lenin, The State and revolution, (London: Verso, 2024). 205 pp. £11.99

And, so, in capitalist society we have a democracy that is curtailed, wretched, false, a democracy only for the rich, for the minority. The dictatorship of the proletariat, the period of transition to communism, will for the first time create democracy for the people, for the majority, along with the necessary suppression of the exploiters, of the minority. (page 113)

The State and Revolution: The Marxist Theory of the State and the Tasks of the Proletariat in the Revolution, to give it its full title, is a classic Marxist text by V.I. Lenin published in 1917. Lenin wrote the book at a time when the investigation of the nature of the state and its political implications were crucial to the tasks of Russian revolutionaries. This new edition from Verso allows us to learn both about Lenin the man and the Marxist theoretician, and see him neither as the idol set up by ‘official communists’ nor the anti-Leninist bogeyman but, as the Brazilian leftist Rodrigo Nunes argues, ‘as an equal… an organiser’. The State and Revolution contains six chapters and the outline of an unfinished seventh chapter. In the book, Lenin investigates the analysis of the nature of the state by Marx and Engels and shows how their later followers, who he dubbed ‘opportunists’, would defang Marx and Engels’ analysis and compromise their revolutionary politics for temporary gains.

Antonio Negri on Lenin

This edition contains an introduction by the late Italian philosopher Antonio Negri, who reaffirms the relevance of Lenin’s ideas. If Marx is the brains of Marxism, then Lenin is its body, Negri argues. For him, Marxism is a critique of political economy focusing on the connection between social relations of exploitation and its control over our bodies. Emerging from inside political economy, this critique induces a struggle against it, which Negri argues allows the mutation of bodies into classes and constitutes a mass ‘subjectivation’ towards class struggle. He argues that Lenin sees bodies within the daily struggle conjoining economic demands and the emancipatory struggle against capitalist control. For Negri, The State and Revolution exemplifies this ‘within and against’ paradigm by connecting it to the beyond. On this reading, Lenin connects utopia with the reality of the current attack on class domination. While this centring of bodies is an interesting point of view, one wonders whether Negri is reading what Lenin is saying, or if it is just an excuse for him to elaborate his theoretical concepts using State and Revolution

Negri further argues that while we can read this book as a simple tactical weapon, what makes it a classic is not its repetition of Marx and Engels’ analysis of the state, but a destructive critique of the very concept of state power, which tries to offer a different conception of power for the working class. This different conception involves isolating the concept of the state from its power as the institutions that ensure capitalist society’s reproduction. The administrative and productive functions of the state machinery can be stripped from it and organised through new institutional forms, as shown in the Paris Commune.

His proposed strategy is a road to ‘dual power’, where the working class dismantles the capitalist state and, at the same time, constructs a socialist society. According to him, The State and Revolution gets overexploited by ‘so-called Leninists’ who thought the dictatorship of the proletariat was nothing other than the maximum reinforcement of the state. For Negri, the book is the ‘best introduction to Marxism’ and puts us on the task of destroying the state and reconstructing the institutions that make a free existence possible, a mission to be accomplished in common. Throughout his introduction, he remains critical of ‘statist’ readings of Lenin both by Stalinists and anti-Communists. However, his introduction to Lenin also leaves much to be desired, as his attempt to read into State and Revolution a Lenin compatible with his theoretical insights sometimes strips Lenin of his voice.

What Marx and Engels Bequeathed

Much of The State and Revolution is dedicated to thoroughly reexamining and reaffirming Marx and Engels’ analysis of the state. Lenin’s commitment to this task underscores the importance he places on reinforcing the theoretical rigour of Marxist thought regarding the nature and function of the State, against both opportunist and anarchist deviations. 

Lenin asserts that the state, a product of class society, functions as an organ for the oppression of one class by another. Any notion of reconciliation merely moderates class struggle in favour of the capitalist class. Since the state serves the interest of the capitalist class, nationalist chauvinism, where the working class defends the interests of ‘our own’ bourgeoisie through a ‘defence of the fatherland’, justifies the function of repressive state apparatuses such as the standing army and the police. Lenin draws from Marx’s works to emphasise the initial step of the working class in revolution: raise itself to the position of the ruling class and win the battle for democracy. To facilitate the transition to socialism, a distinct state of a special form becomes necessary.

Lenin highlights the parasitic nature of crucial state institutions, namely the bureaucracy and standing army, perpetuating bourgeois rule. Marx’s analysis of the Paris Commune in The Civil War in France underscores the necessity of creating a new form of state which eliminates not only monarchical but also bourgeois class rule. This new form replaces the standing army with a people’s army and the bureaucracy with elected officials subject to recall and paid worker’s wages, ushering in comprehensive democracy.  There is little need for a separate police force when the people collectively carry out most state functions, which initiates the process of the state’s ‘withering away.’

Lenin argues that Engels’ elaboration, in a letter to the German socialist August Bebel, that ‘the Commune was no longer a state in the proper sense of the word’ was one of his most important theoretical statements. The Communards had smashed the bourgeois state and replaced it with the special temporary coercive force of the armed proletariat, which made the Commune a departure from the normal functioning of the state as an apparatus to suppress the majority of the population. Lenin discusses the abolition of parliamentarism, converting representative institutions into electable ‘working’ bodies and unifying legislative, judicial, and executive functions into one representative body accountable to the working class. He rejects the immediate abolition of administration, advocating its subordination to an armed vanguard until rendered obsolete. The proletariat’s task with the semi-state involves organising officials under armed people’s control, eliminating parliamentary privileges in favour of officials elected under a mandate. 

Lenin against opportunists 

The final chapter of State and Revolution contains Lenin’s polemics against Plekhanov and Kautsky, the two most prominent theoreticians of Marxism at that time.  He argues that both tried to evade the question of the state, resulting in the distortion of Marxism and the Second International’s turn towards opportunism, such as supporting their own state in an inter-imperialist war and compromising the revolutionary goal of the workers’ movement for temporary gains. Lenin argues that Plekhanov, in his pamphlet Anarchism and Socialism, offers a blend of historical insight into anarchist thinkers, but neglects to discuss the smashing of the old state machine and its replacement.

Lenin’s biggest polemic is against Karl Kautsky. Lenin argues that while Kautsky’s works have been translated into Russian more than any other language and were vital in the popularisation of Marxism in the Tsarist Empire, it cannot be ignored how Kautsky has now drifted into opportunism. He argues that Kautsky often failed to defend the correct Marxist analysis of the state. He further praises Kautsky’s works for refuting the opportunist wing of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), but notes that Kautsky refrained from offering an analysis of the state.

Paradoxically, while relying on Kautsky’s early works to prove the latter’s turn to opportunism, Lenin missed an essential piece of Kautsky precisely on the question of ‘smashing the state’: The Republic and Social Democracy in France. As I’ve argued in my review of Ben Lewis’ recent translation, the Republic piece is essentially State and Revolution before State and Revolution and, alongside Parliamentarism and Democracy, offered a more systematic endeavour by Kautsky to elaborate his view on the State.

Historian Lars T. Lih’s work showed that Lenin’s and Kautsky’s positions – when Kautsky was a Marxist – overlapped much more than The State and Revolution suggests. However, Lenin and Kautsky would take radically take different trajectories at the outbreak of WW1. Kautsky’s inability to commit to his earlier revolutionary strategy, combined with the growth of the opportunist wing of the SPD and his marginalisation, make him, unfortunately, a footnote within the history of the worker’s movement. Lenin realised the nature of WW1 and that a pan-European class war was on the horizon. This concrete analysis of the war and the nature of the state allowed him and the Bolsheviks to take the strategy of revolutionary Marxism where most of the Second International could not, and attempt to smash the Tsarist state.

The State and Revolution Now

What institutions of mass collective participation and political culture would be needed to allow the working class to govern ourselves as a class, and not degenerate into a dictatorship of the party bureaucracy? This is not just a theoretical question. Learning from Lenin today means rethinking how organisations and movements work, and developing a revolutionary strategy that would enable the working class to smash the state. We need revolutionary organisations based upon a democratic culture and political programmes that will unite us as revolutionaries and bring together different tendencies and experiences from the worker’s movement. Now more than ever, we need to heed Lenin’s lessons and develop an analysis of the state and its apparatuses that can provide a strategy that doesn’t try to evade the state or seize it and run it with a socialist tinge but contest its hegemony and smash it!

Barnaby Raine also wrote about The State and Revolution in the Autumn 2014 issue of rs21’s magazine.

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