Tony Cliff

Lenin 2

Chapter 18
The Proletariat Can Wield State Power

Obstacles in the Path of Workers’ Power

As a complement to his State and Revolution, Lenin wrote another important pamphlet, called Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power? It was written between late September and October 1, and its main aim was to expose the age-old prejudices that the masses of the downtrodden and oppressed were too ignorant to be able to wield political power, that the state apparatus was too complicated an instrument for simple mortals to handle.

Where State and Revolution deals with the above problem in general terms, this second pamphlet is much more concerned with the immediate issue of seizing power in Russia in October 1917. One argument against the seizure of power by the proletariat was that

the proletariat “will not be able technically to lay hold of the state apparatus” ... It deserves most attention ... also because it indicates one of the most serious and difficult tasks that will confront the victorious proletariat. There is no doubt that these tasks will be very difficult, but if we, who call ourselves socialists, indicate this difficulty only to shirk these tasks, in practice the distinction between us and the lackeys of the bourgeoisie will be reduced to nought. The difficulty of the tasks of the proletarian revolution should prompt the proletariat’s supporters to make a closer and more definite study of the means of carrying out these tasks. [1]

Obstacles were not an excuse for running away, but impediments to be overcome.

It was true that the proletariat would meet with resistance from the capitalists as well as of high officialdom. “This resistance will have to be broken.”

We can do this, for it is merely a question of breaking the resistance of an insignificant minority of the population, literally a handful of people, over each of whom the employees’ unions, the trade unions, the consumers’ societies, and the Soviets will institute such supervision that every [one] will be surrounded ... We know these ... by name: we only have to consult the lists of directors, board members, large shareholders, etc. There are several hundred, at most several thousand of them in the whole of Russia, and the proletarian state, with the apparatus of the Soviets, of the employees’ unions, etc., will be able to appoint ten or even a hundred supervisors to each of them, so that instead of “breaking resistance” it may even be possible, by means of workers’ control (over the capitalists), to make all resistance impossible.

The important thing will not be even the confiscation of the capitalists’ property, but country-wide, all-embracing workers’ control over the capitalists and their possible supporters. Confiscation alone leads nowhere, as it does not contain the element of organization, of accounting for proper distribution. Instead of confiscation, we could easily impose a fair tax ... taking care, of course, to preclude the possibility of anyone evading assessment, concealing the truth, evading the law. And this possibility can be eliminated only by the workers’ control of the workers’ state ...

We must not only “terrorize” the capitalists, i.e., make them feel the omnipotence of the proletarian state and give up all idea of actively resisting it. We must also break passive resistance, which is undoubtedly more dangerous and harmful. We must not only break resistance of every kind. We must also compel the capitalists to work within the framework of the new state organization. It is not enough to “remove” the capitalists; we must (after removing the undesirable and incorrigible “resisters”) employ them in the service of the new state. This applies both to the capitalists and to the upper section of the bourgeois intellectuals, office employees, etc ... “He who does not work, neither shall he eat” – this is the fundamental, the first, and most important rule the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies can and will introduce when they become the ruling power. [2]

The Proletariat Can Operate the State Machine

Another argument that Lenin deals with is that the proletariat will not be able to set the state apparatus in motion. And he replies:

Since the 1905 Revolution, Russia has been governed by 130,000 landowners, who have perpetrated endless violence against 150,000,000 people, heaped unconstrained abuse upon them, and condemned the vast majority to inhuman toil and semi-starvation. Yet we are told that the 240,000 members of the Bolshevik Party will not be able to govern Russia, govern her in the interests of the poor and against the rich. These 240,000 are already backed by no less than a million votes of the adult population, for this is precisely the proportion between the number of party members and the number of votes cast for the party that has been established by the experience of Europe and the experience of Russia as shown, for example, by the elections to the Petrograd City Council last August. We therefore already have a “state apparatus” of one million people devoted to the socialist state for the sake of high ideals and not for the sake of a fat sum received on the 20th of every month.

In addition to that, we have a “magic way” to enlarge our state apparatus tenfold at once, at one stroke, a way which no capitalist state ever possessed or could possess. This magic way is to draw the working people, to draw the poor, into the daily work of state administration.

To explain how easy it will be to employ this magic way and how faultlessly it will operate, let us take the simplest and most striking example possible.

The state is to forcibly evict a certain family from a flat and move another in. This often happens in the capitalist state, and it will also happen in our proletarian or socialist state.

The capitalist state evicts a working-class family which has lost its breadwinner and cannot pay the rent. The bailiff appears with police, or militia, a whole squad of them. To affect an eviction in a working-class district a whole detachment of Cossacks is required. Why? Because the bailiff and the militiaman refuse to go without a very strong military guard. They know that the scene of an eviction arouses such fury among the neighbors, among thousands and thousands of people who have been driven to the verge of desperation, arouses such hatred towards the capitalists and the capitalist state, that the bailiff and the squad of militiamen run the risk of being torn to pieces at any minute. Large military forces are required, several regiments must be brought into a big city, and the troops must come from some distant, outlying region so that the soldiers will not be familiar with the life of the urban poor, so that the soldiers will not be “infected” with socialism.

The proletarian state has to forcibly move a very poor family into a rich man’s flat. Let us suppose that our squad of workers’ militia is fifteen strong, two sailors, two soldiers, two class-conscious workers (of whom, let us suppose, only one is a member of our party, or a sympathizer), one intellectual, and eight from the poor working people, of whom at least five must be women, domestic servants, unskilled laborers, and so forth. The squad arrives at the rich man’s flat, inspects it and finds that it consists of five rooms occupied by two men and two women – “You must squeeze up a bit into two rooms this winter, citizens, and prepare two rooms for two families now living in cellars. Until the time, with the aid of engineers (you are an engineer, aren’t you?), we have built good dwellings for everybody, you will have to squeeze up a little. Your telephone will serve ten families. This will save a hundred hours of work wasted on shopping, and so forth. Now in your family there are two unemployed persons who can perform light work: a citizeness fifty-five years of age and a citizen fourteen years of age. They will be on duty for three hours a day supervising the proper distribution of provisions for ten families and keeping the necessary account of this. The student citizen in our squad will now write out this state order in two copies and you will be kind enough to give us a signed declaration that you will faithfully carry it out.”

This, in my opinion, can illustrate how the distinction between the old bourgeois and the new socialist state apparatus and state administration could be illustrated.

We are not Utopians. We know that an unskilled laborer or a cook cannot immediately get on with the job of state administration. In this we agree with the Cadets, with Breshkovskaya, and with Tsereteli. We differ, however, from these citizens in that we demand an immediate break with the prejudiced view that only the rich, or officials chosen from rich families, are capable of administering the state, of performing the ordinary, everyday work of administration. We demand that training in the work of state administration be conducted by class-conscious workers and soldiers and that this training be begun at once, i.e., that a beginning be made at once in training all the working people and all the poor, for this work. [3]

The Potentialities of the Proletariat

What confidence Lenin had in the potential power and initiative of the oppressed masses! Nevertheless, the Bolsheviks were realistic, and knew that workers would make mistakes.

It goes without saying that this new apparatus is bound to make mistakes in taking its first steps ... Is there any way other than practice by which the people can learn to govern themselves and to avoid mistakes? Is there any way other than by proceeding immediately to genuine self-government by the people? The chief thing now is to abandon the prejudiced bourgeois-intellectualist view that only special officials, who by their very social position are entirely dependent upon capital, can administer the state ... The chief thing is to imbue the oppressed and the working people with confidence in their own strength, to prove to them in practice that they can and must themselves ensure the proper, most strictly regulated and organized distribution of bread, all kinds of food, milk, clothing, housing, etc., in the interests of the poor. Unless this is done, Russia cannot be saved from collapse and ruin. The conscientious, bold, universal move to hand over administrative work to proletarians and semi-proletarians will, however, rouse such unprecedented revolutionary enthusiasm among the people, will so multiply the people’s forces in combating distress, that much that seemed impossible to our narrow, old, bureaucratic forces will become possible for the millions, who will begin to work for themselves and not for the capitalists, the gentry, the bureaucrats, and not out of fear of punishment. [4]

[Another] plea is that the Bolsheviks will not be able to retain power because “the situation is exceptionally complicated.” ... O wise men! They, perhaps, would be willing to reconcile themselves to revolution if only the “situation” were not “exceptionally complicated.”

Such revolutions never occur, and sighs for such a revolution amount to nothing more than the reactionary wails of a bourgeois intellectual. Even if a revolution has started in a situation that seemed to be not very complicated, the development of the revolution itself always creates an exceptionally complicated situation. A revolution, a real, profound, a “people’s” revolution, to use Marx’s expression, is the incredibly complicated and painful process of the death of the old and birth of the new social order, of the mode of life of tens of millions of people ... There is nothing to discuss in [this] plea, because there is no economic, political, or any other meaning whatever in it. It contains only the yearning of people who are distressed and frightened by the revolution ...

I had a conversation with a wealthy engineer shortly before the July Days. This engineer had once been a revolutionary, had been in the Social Democratic movement and even a member of the Bolshevik Party. Now he was full of fear and rage at the turbulent and indomitable workers. “If they were at least like the German workers,” he said (he is an educated man and has been abroad), of course, “I understand that the social revolution is, in general, inevitable, but here, when the workers’ level has been so reduced by the war ... it is not a revolution, it is an abyss.”

He was willing to accept the social revolution if history were to lead to it in the peaceful, calm, smooth, and precise manner of a German express train pulling into a station. A sedate conductor would open the carriage door and announce: “Social Revolution station! Alle Aussteigen! [All change!]” In that case, he would have no objection to changing his position of engineer under the Tit Tityches to that of engineer under the workers’ organizations. That man has seen strikes. He knows what a storm of passion the most ordinary strike arouses even in the most peaceful times. He, of course, understands how many million times more furious this storm must be when the class struggle has aroused all the working people of a vast country, when war and exploitation have driven almost to desperation millions of people who for centuries have been tormented by the landowners, for decades have been robbed and downtrodden by the capitalists and the Tsar’s officials. He understands all this “theoretically,” he only pays lip service to this, he is simply terrified by the “exceptionally complicated situation.” [5]

The revolution, for Lenin, is the drama in which the masses enter the arena of history by means of their independent actions, defying all established norms. It is a time when everyone wants to know, to learn, to decide ... As John Reed described so well:

In every city, in most towns, along the front, each political faction had its newspaper – sometimes several. Hundreds of thousands of pamphlets were distributed by thousands of organizations, and poured into the armies, the villages, the factories, the streets. The thirst for education, so long thwarted, burst with the revolution into a frenzy of expression. From Smolny Institute alone, the first six months, went out every day tons, car-loads, train-loads of literature, saturating the land. Russia absorbed reading matter like hot sand drinks water, insatiable. And it was not fables, falsified history, diluted religion, and the cheap fiction that corrupts – but social and economic theories, philosophy, the works of Tolstoy, Gogol, and Gorky ...

Then the talk, beside which Carlyle’s flood of French speech was a mere trickle. Lectures, debates, speeches – in theaters, circuses, school-houses, clubs, Soviet meeting-rooms, union headquarters, barracks ... Meetings in the trenches at the front, in village squares, factories ... What a marvellous sight to see Putilovsky Zavod [the Putilov factory] pour out its forty thousand to listen to Social Democrats, Socialist Revolutionaries, Anarchists, anybody, whatever they had to say, as long as they would talk! For months in Petrograd, and all over Russia, every street-corner was a public tribune. In railway trains, street-cars, always the spurting up of impromptu debate, everywhere. [6]

The intelligence of the masses was harnessed along with their courage; their warmheartedness was accompanied by forceful action. The revolution, Reed writes, “had not come as they expected it would come, nor as the intelligentsia desired it; but it had come – rough, strong, impatient of formulas, contemptuous of sentimentalism; real.” [7]

Maxim Gorky

As a banner-bearer and symbol of the intelligentsia who for years had longed for a revolution, and then could not stomach the one that actually took place, no one could surpass Maxim Gorky, for many years a close friend of Lenin. In 1917, Gorky represented everything Lenin argued against in the pamphlet we are considering. He did not see social revolution, but only an explosion of “zoological anarchism,” aroused by the call “rob the robbers!” On April 20, he wrote in Novaia Zhizn:

Politics is the soil in which the nettle of poisonous enmity, evil suspicions, shameless lies, slander, morbid ambitions and disrespect for the individual grows rapidly and luxuriantly. Name anything bad in man and it is precisely in the soil of political struggle that it grows with particular liveliness and abundance. [8]

On May 6, Gorky approvingly quoted a letter he had received:

Doesn’t one become frightened when one sees how dirty hands and pocket interests are seizing the great and sacred banner of socialism ...? The peasantry, greedy for property, will receive land and turn away, having torn up for leggings the banner of Zhelyabov and Breshkovskaya ... Soldiers willingly take up the banner of “peace for the whole world”; however, they strive for peace not in the name of the idea of international democracy, but in the name of their own selfish interests: preservation of life and hoped-for personal prosperity. [9]

This was his reaction to the July Days:

The disgusting scenes of the madness which seized Petrograd the day of 4 July will remain in my memory for the rest of my life.

There, bristling with rifles and machine guns, a truck flashes by like a mad hog; it is tightly packed with motley members of the “revolutionary army.” [10]

And this was what Gorky had to say on the “role of the Leninists”:

I detest and abhor people who arouse the dark instincts of the masses, no matter what names these people bear and no matter how considerable their service to Russia may have been in the past. [11]

The Bolshevik preparation for insurrection aroused these feelings in his breast:

All the dark instincts of the crowd irritated by the disintegration of life and by the lies and filth of politics will flare up and fume, poisoning us with anger, hate, and revenge; people will kill one another, unable to suppress their own animal stupidity. [12]

The essentially aristocratic disdain for the “dark masses” is expressed by this “stormy petrel,” who for two decades had been in the revolutionary movement!

Lenin’s pamphlet, Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power? was a reply to the Gorkys of his time. It was a concentrated and economical statement of revolutionary optimism, of confidence in the creative abilities of the organized proletariat, the warm humanity and courage of the millions who for centuries had had their personalities stunted, and now were standing up and fighting.




1. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, p.101.

2. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, pp.107-09.

3. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, pp.111-13.

4. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, pp.114-15.

5. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, pp.118-20.

6. Reed, p.12.

7. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, p.109.

8. M. Gorky, Untimely Thoughts: Essays on Revolution, Culture, and the Bolsheviks 1917-1918, New York 1968, p.7.

9. Gorky, pp.32-33.

10. Gorky, p.72.

11. Gorky, p.75.

12. Gorky, p.83.


Last updated on 25.10.2007