Tony Cliff

Lenin 2

Chapter 17
State and Revolution

The central problem of all revolutions is that of state power. Which class is to hold it? There can be no revolutionary movement without revolutionary theory – as Lenin many times reiterated – so it is not surprising that he spent the months of August and September, while in hiding, preparing a work on the subject of State and Revolution.

He had been studying the subject systematically during the last few months of 1916. On February 17, 1917, while still in Switzerland, he wrote to Alexandra Kollontai: “I am preparing (have almost got the material ready) an article on the question of the attitude of Marxism to the state.” [1]

Lenin left this manuscript in Stockholm on his way to Russia. Apparently it was practically ready for publication, as can be deduced from his letter to Kamenev, written between July 5 and July 7:

Entre nous: if they do me in, I ask you to publish my notebook: Marxism on the State (it got left behind in Stockholm). It’s bound in a blue cover. It contains a collection of all the quotations from Marx and Engels, likewise from Kautsky against Pannekoek. There are a number of remarks and notes, and formulations. I think it could be published after a week’s work. I believe it to be important ... The condition: all this is absolutely entre nous! [2]

It is clear from this, firstly, that the work was practically ready even before the February Revolution, and secondly that Lenin thought it to be of paramount importance. And there is no doubt that this work, the final draft of which was written a couple of months before the October insurrection and published under the title State and Revolution, has proved to be among his most significant.

It addresses itself to some of the most momentous questions of theory and practice facing the revolutionary movement, questions that have certainly not lost their importance over time, but rather the contrary.

Reviving the Marxist Theory of the State

The “Marxists” of the Second International, including their chief theoretician, Kautsky, castrated and vulgarized the Marxist theory of the state.

What is now happening to Marx’s theory [Lenin writes] has, in the course of history, happened repeatedly to the theories of revolutionary thinkers and leaders of oppressed classes fighting for emancipation. During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred, and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say ... while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge, and vulgarizing it. Today, the bourgeoisie and the opportunists within the labor movement concur in this doctoring of Marxism. They omit, obscure, or distort the revolutionary side of this theory, its revolutionary soul. [3]

The reformists distorted Marxism in general, but especially the Marxist concept of the state. The “Marxism” of Kautsky was mechanical, fatalistic. It was passive and nonrevolutionary. A long period of purely evolutionary, reformist activity had led Kautsky to adopt a critical position on various individual aspects of the capitalist state, but not to oppose it totally. Reform of aspects of the capitalist state, not its overthrow, became the leitmotiv. For Kautsky, Marxism was a theory of the class struggle. But for Marx himself, it was the development of the class struggle to the dictatorship of the proletariat. Thus in a letter to Weydemeyer dated March 5, 1852, Marx stated:

And now as to myself, no credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modem society or the struggle between them. Long before me, bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this class struggle and bourgeois economists, the economic anatomy of the classes. What I did that was new was to prove: (1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular, historical phases in the development of production, (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, (3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society. [4]

Thus, according to Marx, an acceptance of the concept of the class struggle does not go beyond bourgeois limits; the dictatorship of the proletariat does.

For Kautsky and his associates, the capitalist state was taken as given, to be adapted, even while fighting particular aspects of it. In the Erfurt Program (1891), Kautsky wrote:

This revolution (i.e., the seizure of political power by the proletariat) may take the most diverse forms, depending on the conditions in which it occurs. It is in no way inseparable from violence and bloodshed.

We have already seen cases, in the history of the world, of ruling classes who were intelligent enough, weak enough, or cowardly enough to surrender voluntarily in the face of necessity. [5]

Kautsky’s theory bore fruit in the years after the First World War. In a work published in 1922, he wrote:

In his famous article criticizing the Social Democratic Party’s program, Marx says: “Between capitalist and communist society, there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is a period of political transition in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.” Given our experiences over the last few years, we can now alter this passage on the kind of government we want, and say: “Between the period of a purely bourgeois state and a purely proletarian state, there lies a period of the transformation of one into the other. Corresponding to this there is also a period of political transition, in which the state will usually take the form of a coalition government.[6]

In a later book, The Materialist Concept of History, Kautsky went so far as to completely deny the need for armed struggle in the revolution:

When you have a democratic state (the existing bourgeois state), a consolidated democracy, armed struggle no longer plays any role in the solution of social conflicts. These conflicts are resolved by peaceful means, by propaganda and the vote. Even the mass strike, as a means of pressure by the working class, is of decreasing utility. [7]

The state is a neutral body:

The modern democratic state differs from preceding types in that utilization of the government apparatus by the exploiting classes is no longer an essential feature of it, no longer inseparable from it. On the contrary, the democratic state tends not to be the organ of a minority, as was the case in previous regimes, but rather that of the majority of the population, in other words of the toiling classes. Where it is, however, the organ of a minority of exploiters, the reason for this does not lie in its own nature; it is rather that the toiling classes themselves lack unity, knowledge, independence or fighting ability – all qualities which in their turn are a result of the conditions in which they live.

Democracy offers the possibility of cancelling the political power of the exploiters, and today, with the constant increase in the number of workers, this in fact happens more and more frequently.

The more this is the case, the more the democratic state ceases to be a simple instrument in the hands of the exploiting classes. The government apparatus is already beginning, in certain conditions, to turn against the latter – in other words to work in the opposite direction to that in which it used to work in the past. From being an instrument of oppression, it is beginning to change into an instrument of emancipation for the workers. [8]

Kautsky was, of course, not as openly anti-revolutionary before 1917, but the basic characteristic of reformist adaptation to the state, never raising the question of the need to smash it by revolution, was already detectable in his thinking.

Smashing the Capitalist State

In State and Revolution, Lenin starts by making it clear that the question of the state is the central question for war and revolution. First, “our prime task is to reestablish what Marx really taught on the subject of the state.” [9]

The state is a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms. The state arises where, when and insofar as class antagonisms objectively cannot be reconciled. And, conversely, the existence of the state proves that the class antagonisms are irreconcilable. [10]

... [T]he state is an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another.

In October-November 1918, in his book The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, Lenin underlined even more heavily the class nature of parliamentary democracy.

Bourgeois democracy, although a great historical advance in comparison with medievalism, always remains, and under capitalism is bound to remain, restricted, truncated, false and hypocritical, a paradise for the rich and a snare and deception for the exploited, for the poor. [11] ... [D]eceit, violence, corruption, mendacity, hypocrisy, and oppression of the poor is hidden beneath the civilized, polished, and perfumed exterior of modern bourgeois democracy. [12]

Kautsky’s distortion of Marxism was subtle:

Theoretically, it is not denied that the state is an organ of class rule, or that class antagonisms are irreconcilable. But what is overlooked or glossed over is this: if the state is the product of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms, if it is a power standing above society and “alienating itself more and more from it,” it is obvious that the liberation of the oppressed class is impossible not only without a violent revolution, but also without the destruction of the apparatus of state power which was created by the ruling class ... it is this conclusion which Kautsky has “forgotten” and distorted” ... [13] all previous revolutions perfected the state machine, whereas it must be broken, smashed.

This conclusion is the chief and fundamental point in the Marxist theory of the state. And it is precisely this fundamental point which has been completely ignored by the dominant official Social Democratic parties and, indeed, distorted (as we shall see later) by the foremost theoretician of the Second International, Karl Kautsky. [14]

Dictatorship of the Proletariat

The smashing of the capitalist state apparatus and the crushing of the bourgeoisie are necessary, because the bourgeoisie will never give up its effort to reestablish its economic and political dominance.

The theory of the class struggle, applied by Marx to the question of the state and the socialist revolution, leads as a matter of course to the recognition of the political rule of the proletariat, of its dictatorship, i.e., of undivided power directly backed by the armed force of the people. The overthrow of the bourgeoisie can be achieved only by the proletariat becoming the ruling class, capable of crushing the inevitable and desperate resistance of the bourgeoisie, and of organizing all the working and exploited people for the new economic system.

The proletariat needs state power, a centralized organization of force, an organization of violence, both to crush the resistance of the exploiters and to lead the enormous mass of the population – the peasants, the petty bourgeoisie, and semi-proletarians – in the work of organizing a socialist economy. [15]

To confine Marxism to the theory of the class struggle means curtailing Marxism, distorting it, reducing it to something acceptable to the bourgeoisie. A Marxist is solely someone who extends the recognition of the class struggle to the recognition of the dictatorship of the proletariat. [16]

On the basis of the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871, Marx and Engels had drawn clear conclusions about what kind of state should replace the capitalist state, what form the dictatorship of the proletariat should take. In Marx’s words:

The first decree of the Commune ... was the suppression of the standing army and its replacement by the armed people ... The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of Paris, responsible and revocable at any time. The majority of its members were naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class ... The police, which until then had been the instrument of the government, was at once stripped of its political attributes and turned into the responsible and at all times revocable instrument of the Commune. So were the officials of all other branches of the administration. From the members of the Commune downwards, public service had to be done at workmen’s wages. The privileges and the representation allowances of the high dignitaries of state disappeared along with the dignitaries themselves ... Having once got rid of the standing army and the police, the instruments of the physical force of the old government, the Commune proceeded at once to break the instrument of spiritual suppression, the power of the priests ... The judicial functionaries lost that sham independence ... they were thenceforward to be elective, responsible and revocable. [17]

Lenin quotes these words and concludes:

The Commune ... 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 by other institutions of a fundamentally different type ... the abolition of all representation allowances and of all monetary privileges to officials, the reduction of the remuneration of all servants of the state to the level of “workmen’s wages.” [18]

Under capitalism, the executive (civil servants, etc.) hides behind the parliamentary facade.

“The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary, body, executive and legislative at the same time.”

“A working, not a parliamentary, body” – this is a blow straight from the shoulder at the present-day parliamentarians and parliamentary “lap dogs” of Social Democracy! Take any parliamentary country, from America to Switzerland, from France to Britain, Norway and so forth – in these countries the real business of “state” is performed behind the scenes and is carried on by the departments, chancelleries and general staffs. Parliament is given up to talk for the special purpose of fooling the “common people.” [19]

Bolshevik policy was a practical policy.

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.”

The subordination, however, must be to the armed vanguard of all the exploited and working people, i.e., to the proletariat. A beginning can and must be made at once, overnight, to replace the specific “bossing” of state officials by the simple functions of “foremen and accountants,” functions which are already fully within the ability of the average town dweller and can well be performed for “workmen’s wages.”

We, the workers, shall organize large-scale production on the basis of what capitalism has already created, relying on our own experience as workers, establishing strict, iron discipline backed up by the state power of the armed workers. We shall reduce the role of state officials to that of simply carrying out our instructions as responsible, revocable, modestly paid “foremen and accountants” (of course, with the aid of technicians of all sorts, types, and degrees). This is our proletarian task, this is what we can and must start with in accomplishing the proletarian revolution. Such a beginning, on the basis of large-scale production, will of itself lead to the gradual “withering away” of all bureaucracy, to the gradual creation of an order – an order without inverted commas, an order bearing no similarity to wage slavery – an order under which the functions of control and accounting, becoming more and more simple, will be performed by each in turn, will then become a habit and will finally die out as the special functions of a special section of the population. [20]

The Transition from Capitalism to Communism

In Lenin’s writings, as in those of Marx before him, there is very little about the future socialist society. Neither Marx nor Lenin were Utopian socialists and they believed that socialism could be achieved only through the practical struggle of humanity. To postulate the features of socialism before it was achieved would be dogmatic, empty play-acting. But both were quite explicit on the process of the class struggle against capitalism for socialism.

During the transition from capitalism to communism suppression is still necessary, but it is now the suppression of the exploiting minority by the exploited majority. A special apparatus, a special machine for suppression, the “state,” is still necessary, but this is now a transitional state. It is no longer a state in the proper sense of the word; for the suppression of the minority of exploiters by the majority of the wage slaves of yesterday is comparatively so easy, simple, and natural a task that it will entail far less bloodshed than the suppression of the risings of slaves, serfs, or wage-laborers, and it will cost mankind far less. And it is compatible with the extension of democracy to such an overwhelming majority of the population that the need for a special machine of suppression will begin to disappear. Naturally, the exploiters are unable to suppress the people without a highly complex machine for performing this task, but the people can suppress the exploiters even with a very simple “machine,” almost without a “machine,” without a special apparatus, by the simple organization of the armed people (such as the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, we would remark, running ahead). [21]

Democracy for the vast majority of the people, and suppression by force, i.e., exclusion from democracy, of the exploiters and oppressors of the people – this is the change democracy undergoes during the transition from capitalism to communism.

Only in communist society, when the resistance of the capitalists has been completely crushed, when the capitalists have disappeared, when there are no classes (i.e., when there is no distinction between the members of society as regards their relation to the social means of production), only then “the state ... ceases to exist,” and “it becomes possible to speak of freedom.” [22]

Lastly, only communism makes the state absolutely unnecessary, for there is nobody to be suppressed – “nobody” in the sense of a class; of a systematic struggle against a definite section of the population. We are not Utopians, and do not in the least deny the possibility and inevitability of excesses on the part of individual persons, or the need to stop such excesses. In the first place, however, no special machine, no special apparatus of suppression, is needed for this; this will be done by the armed people themselves, as simply and as readily as any crowd of civilized people, even in modern society, interferes to put a stop to a scuffle or to prevent a woman from being assaulted. And, secondly, we know that the fundamental social cause of excesses, which consist in the violation of the rules of social intercourse, is the exploitation of the people, their want, and their poverty. With the removal of this chief cause, excesses will inevitably begin to “wither away.” We do not know how quickly and in what succession, but we do know they will wither away. With their withering away the state will also wither away. [23]

For Lenin the question of the transition from capitalism to communism on the economic level was also a political question. Here again he was practical, realistic to the end, trying to gauge the combination of elements of the past and the future – of capitalism and communism – in the transition period. In the immediate post-revolutionary society, there would be a combination of elements of the old and the new.

The means of production are no longer the private property of individuals. The means of production belong to the whole of society. Every member of society, performing a certain part of the socially necessary work, receives a certificate from society to the effect that he has done a certain amount of work. And with this certificate he receives from the public store of consumer goods a corresponding quantity of products. After a deduction is made of the amount of labor which goes to the public fund, every worker, therefore, receives from society as much as he has given to it.

“Equality” apparently reigns supreme. [24]

However, there is no real equality:

“Equal right,” says Marx, we certainly do have here; but it is still a “bourgeois right,” which, like every right, implies inequality. Every right is an application of an equal measure to different people who in fact are not alike, are not equal to one another. That is why “equal right” is a violation of equality and an injustice. In fact, everyone, having performed as much social labor as another, receives an equal share of the social product (after the above-mentioned deductions).

But people are not alike: one is strong, another is weak; one is married, another is not; one has more children, another has less, and so on. And the conclusion Marx draws is:

“With an equal performance of labor, and hence an equal share in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right would have to be unequal rather than equal.”

The first phase of communism, therefore, cannot yet provide justice and equality: differences, and unjust differences, in wealth will still persist, but the exploitation of man by man will have become impossible. [25]

And so, in the first phase of communist society (usually called socialism) “bourgeois right” is not abolished in its entirety, but only in part, only in proportion to the economic revolution so far attained, i.e., only in respect of the means of production. “Bourgeois right” recognizes them as the private property of individuals. Socialism converts them into common property. To that extent – and to that extent alone – “bourgeois right” disappears.

However, it persists as far as its other part is concerned; it persists in the capacity of regulator (determining factor) in the distribution of products and the allotment of labor among the members of society. The socialist principle, “He who does not work shall not eat,” is already realized; the other socialist principle, “An equal amount of products for an equal amount of labor,” is also already realized. But this is not yet communism, and it does not yet abolish “bourgeois right,” which gives unequal individuals, in return for unequal (really unequal) amounts of labor, equal amounts of products. [26]

To the extent that “bourgeois rights” remain,

there still remains the need for a state, which, while safeguarding the common ownership of the means of production, would safeguard equality in labor and in the distribution of products. The state withers away insofar as there are no longer any capitalists, any classes, and, consequently, no class can be suppressed. But the state has not yet completely withered away, since there still remains the safeguarding of “bourgeois right,” which sanctifies actual inequality. For the state to wither away completely, complete communism is necessary. [27]

Even though the workers differ from one another in skill, in their needs and those of their families, etc., in one thing they must be absolutely equal in order that the same amount of labor that every worker gives to society in one form be received back in another: in the ownership of the means of production. The growth of production, the increase of the amount of means of production belonging to society, i.e., owned equally by all the workers, will progressively undermine equal rights in the distribution of the products. This in turn will progressively increase equality among the people. And thus does the bourgeois right of the transition period include its own negation.

Bourgeois right in the transition period, while it lays down that every worker will receive means of consumption from society according to the labor he gives it, is based on social equality as regards the means of production, and thereby will wither away of itself. [28]

The dictatorship of the proletariat and the abolition of private property of the means of production are not enough, according to Marx and Lenin, to overcome bourgeois law and the bourgeois state inherited from a barbarous class society. A whole period of progress of the productive forces, plus intellectual and moral transformation of the most important productive force – the working people – are necessary for the transition to real human freedom.

The period of the dictatorship of the proletariat will be a long one of very hard class struggle, in which the proletariat will have to fight on the economic, cultural, and political fronts against the powers of the past, above all the habits and traditions of capitalism that have burdened the consciousness of the masses.

The seizure of political power by the proletariat is only the first step towards the economic construction and cultural revolution that are necessary to achieve real communism.

In Conclusion

Throughout history, the ruling classes have created a mystique around the state, describing it as supreme and omnipotent, so that the oppressed classes should accept their inferiority in face of it. Lenin’s task was to remove all mystification and to reveal the class nature of the state.

The intimate relation between his theory and practice is most clearly shown in the few words from his postscript to State and Revolution written on November 30, 1917:

[T]he writing of the second part of the pamphlet (The Experience of the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917) will probably have to be put off for a long time. It is more pleasant and useful to go through the “experience of the revolution” than to write about it. [29]

While attributing to his work the very modest goal of reviving the genuine “teaching of Marx about the state” in the light of the actual experience and needs of the revolution, Lenin in fact gave Marx’s ideas a new concreteness and hence a new development. The whole of Lenin’s teaching is in State and Revolution, above all his complete confidence in the creative potential of the masses – a confidence that was the theme of all his work and struggles. To quote from just one article which he wrote in 1906:

It is just the revolutionary periods which are distinguished by wider, richer, more deliberate, more methodical, more systematic, more courageous, and more vivid making of history than periods of philistine, Cadet, reformist progress. But the liberals turn the truth inside out! They palm off paltriness as magnificent making of history. They regard the inactivity of the oppressed or downtrodden masses as the triumph of “system” in the work of bureaucrats and bourgeois. They shout about the disappearance of intellect and reason when, instead of the picking of draft laws to pieces by petty bureaucrats and liberal penny-a-liner journalists, there begins a period of direct political activity of the “common people,” who simply set to work without more ado to smash all the instruments for oppressing the people, seize power, and take what was regarded as belonging to all kinds of robbers of the people – in short, when the intellect and reason of millions of downtrodden people awaken not only to read books, but for action, vital human action, to make history. [30]

And again:

The organizing abilities of the people, particularly of the proletariat, but also of the peasantry, are revealed a million times more strongly, fully, and productively in periods of revolutionary whirlwind than in periods of so-called calm (dray-horse) historical progress. [31]

State and Revolution was influenced by the struggles of 1917 and in turn influenced them. It is a perfect synthesis of theory and practice. The point of departure of this work is revolutionary practice and its final aim is also revolutionary practice – the connecting link is revolutionary theory. The theory in turn is immediately integrated with practice.

In State and Revolution there is a remarkable combination of scientific sobriety and real will for action. It is the apex of Lenin’s writing – his real testament. It became the guide for the first victorious proletarian revolution and is bound to grow in importance in future revolutionary struggles. The destiny of this masterpiece is also of historical importance in another sense: its spirit is bound to be invoked against the bureaucratic degeneration associated with the rise of Stalinist state capitalism and the development of hyper-bureaucratic regimes elsewhere.




1. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.35, p.286.

2. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.36, p.454.

3. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.25, p.385.

4. Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, London 1941, p.57.

5. In A. Neuberg, Armed Insurrection, London 1970, p.31.

6. K. Kautsky, The Labour Revolution, London 1925, pp.53-54.

7. In Neuberg, p.32.

8. In Neuberg, pp.37-38.

9. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.25, p.386.

10. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.25, p.387.

11. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.28, p.243.

12. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.28, p.325.

13. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.25, p.388.

14. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.25, p.406.

15. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.25, p.404.

16. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.25, p.412.

17. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.25, pp.418-19.

18. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.25, pp.419-20.

19. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.25, p.423.

20. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.25, pp.425-26.

21. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.25, p.463.

22. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.25, p.462.

23. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.25, p.464.

24. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.25, p.465.

25. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.25, pp.465-66.

26. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.25, p.467.

27. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.25, pp.467-68.

28. T. Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia, London 1974, pp.132-33.

29. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.25, p.492.

30. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.10, pp.253-54.

31. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.10, p.259.


Last updated on 25.10.2007