Written nearly a century ago, Lenin’s State and Revolution offers evergreen insights for socialists today. Alongside the renaissance in socialist politics in the US, there has been a renewed intrigue into what orientation towards the state socialists must adopt to achieve emancipatory ends. Whereas some socialists today argue that the capitalist state in general and the Democratic Party in particular are relatively neutral entities that can be leveraged by socialists in the struggle against capitalism, Lenin offered an entirely different interpretation of the social function of the state and liberal democracy. These entities are not tools for liberation — they must be overcome in the struggle for socialism through a workers’ revolution and the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”
State and Revolution was written at the height of the October Revolution, during August and September of 1917. In fact, Lenin left it unfinished. He famously concluded his work with these words:
... I did not succeed in writing a single line of [the second part of the book]; what “interfered” was the political crisis of the October Revolution of 1917. Such “interference” can only be welcomed. However, the second part of the pamphlet (devoted to the “Experience of the Russian Revolution 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 revolution” than to write about it.
Lenin developed the revolutionary ideas in this pamphlet in contrast to some competing theories and strategies that other factions of the left of the period advanced, most notably Lenin’s former comrades in the Second International. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the Second International fragmented into three camps:
Lenin and the Bolsheviks in the Russian Empire spearheaded the last of the three factions, and went on to found the Third International (or the Communist International) in 1919.
The social-democratic parties who supported the war efforts of their respective bourgeois governments believed that a “defense of the fatherland” was a lesser-evil option in a no-win situation. Their theory and strategy of how to achieve socialism reinforced this belief. This wing of the Second International believed that socialism could be achieved gradually and peacefully through an electoral road to socialism. According to this theory, all that was needed to overcome capitalist despotism was the incremental election of socialists to political offices so that they could pass progressive reforms on behalf of the exploited and oppressed classes, until one day the Socialists leisurely walk to power would conclude when 51% of the electorate voted them in. Then the capitalists would recognize the will of the majority and step out of the way of the new socialist order.
With the outbreak of the imperialist war, working within this gradualist framework meant supporting one's own government in the war effort, while simultaneously advocating for peace and armistice through electoral means as the most pragmatic and realistic strategy for ending the war. The social-democrats feared that fighting against the war would place a target on their backs and potentially even turn the masses against them. Gradual party-building over the course of decades would evaporate under the heat of “anti-subversive” repression and their hard-won posts in government would be lost in conditions of illegality. In practice, this meant that socialists would abandon any semblance of anti-imperialist politics, voting in favor of funding the war in their parliaments, and by extension, sending millions of workers to die fighting their fellow workers on behalf of the ruling classes in the trenches of Europe and North Africa.
In contrast to these electoral, imperialist, and “social-chauvinist” strategies, Lenin and the revolutionary anti-imperialist wing of the world socialist movement advocated the principles of proletarian internationalism and revolutionary defeatism, best summarized by Lenin’s statement that the only means for achieving peace is for the working-classes of the world “to turn their weapons against their own government.” For Lenin and the internationalist left, it was the duty of socialists to “systematically and unflinchingly” turn “the imperialist war into civil [class] war.”
The decisive difference between these two approaches to achieving peace - between electoralism and revolutionary defeatism- was informed by their conflicting theoretical understandings of the capitalist state and liberal democracy. Whereas the reformist and electoralist wing of the Second International understood the capitalist state and liberal democracy to be a relatively neutral and autonomous institution that could be leveraged by socialists towards progressive ends, and eventually socialism itself, Lenin understood it as a “a special repressive force of the bourgeoisie for the suppression of the proletariat.” It was an “organization for the systematic use of violence by one class against the other, by one part of the population against another.” Understanding the capitalist state in this manner, revolutionaries, in contrast to their reformist counterparts, believed that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”, but that it instead must be smashed through socialist revolution.
The reformists during WW1 subscribed to the nationalism of their respective nations, seeing their own nation as uniquely progressive and their nation’s enemies as uniquely reactionary. Lenin did not deny the institutional, cultural, and political variance of different states. “Nevertheless,” Lenin argued , “in spite of the motley varieties of their forms, the different states of the various civilized countries all have this in common: they are all based on modern bourgeois society, only a little more or little less capitalistically developed.” Lenin even went as far as to maintain that revolutionaries ought to be in favor of “a democratic republic as the best form of state for the proletariat under capitalism… In capitalist society, under conditions most favorable to its development, we have more or less complete democracy in the democratic republic. ”
No matter how preferable a democratic republic may have been relative to the “motley varieties” of other state forms, Lenin threw cold water onto the naive dreams of a reformist road to socialism within the institutional terrain of bourgeois democracy, reminding us that “this democracy is always bound by the narrow framework of capitalist exploitation, and consequently remains, in reality, a democracy for the minority, only for the possessing classes, only for the rich. Freedom in capitalist society always remains just about the same as it was in the ancient Greek republic: freedom for the slave owners.”
Given that the capitalist state is the product of the “irreconcilability of class antagonisms,” and that it “stands above society” as an instrument of class domination- a “special repressive force” of armed men, police, prisons, borders, military operative, etc..- every instance of democracy, freedom, and justice within this system are fundamentally tainted by the social relations of class society. Therefore, according to Marx, supposed “representative democracy” and “democratic republics” are but systems where “the oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing classes shall represent them and oppress them in parliament.” Liberal democracy is nothing other than a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie which wields the capitalist state and its special bodies of armed men as an instrument of class domination. For Marx, Engels, Lenin, and their inheritors, this dictatorship of the bourgeoisie must be smashed and subsequently replaced by a dictatorship of the proletariat. To maintain that such an apparatus could be gradually reformed is either tragically naive or maniacally deceptive.
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… at a certain stage in the development of democracy, [the dictatorship of the proletariat] first welds together the class that wages a revolutionary struggle against capitalism- the proletariat, and enables it to crush, smash to atoms, wipe off the face of the earth the bourgeois, even the republican-bourgeois, state machine, the standing army, the police and the bureaucracy and to substitute for them a more democratic state machine, but a state machine nevertheless, in the shape of armed workers who proceed to form a militia involving the entire population.
In between capitalism and communism is a transitional process of revolutionary transformation. It is neither a slow, gradual, and peaceful road as advocated by reformist social-democrats; nor is it a singular, processless rupture which abolishes all forms of hierarchy in an unfailing sweep as envisioned by anarchists. The connecting link which acts as the political harbinger between the death of the old society of class domination and the birth of its classless and stateless successor is the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Within capitalist society, where the state and liberal “democracy” are defined by the despotic rule of the property owning minority over the exploited and propertyless majority, the dictatorship of the proletariat acts as the antithesis to this state of affairs where the armed vanguard of the working and oppressed classes rule over the exploiting minority.
As Lenin understood, every period of revolution is also a period of civil war. No revolutionary movement emerges without being challenged with equal force by counter-revolutionary sections of the existing ruling-class. The counter-revolutionary fervor of the ruling-classes must be suppressed and smothered out of existence through sheer revolutionary force. Without systematic quelling of efforts at counter-revolution by the outgoing ruling-class, the oppressed classes would just be rolling over and allowing the exploiters to take their power back.
By armed vanguard, Lenin did not have in mind a small, elite party of enlightened intellectuals. Instead, he meant millions of the most conscious militants from the working and oppressed classes —organized within mass workers’ councils (or soviets)- who could be the active force in ushering in the socialization of the means of production, and preventing them from being forcefully taken back into control by the capitalist class and their counter-revolutionary cronies. Despite common misconception, Lenin’s vision of the dictatorship of the proletariat is fundamentally more democratic than any democracy under capitalism:
No, democracy is not identical with the subordination of the minority to the majority. Democracy is a state recognising the subordination of the [capitalist] minority to the [working-class] majority i.e., an organization for the systematic use of violence by one class against the other, by one part of the population against another.…the ‘special repressive force’ of the bourgeoisie for the suppression of the proletariat, of the millions of workers by a handful of the rich, must be replaced by a ‘special repressive force’ of the proletariat for the suppression of the bourgeoisie.
Any well-meaning and informed pacifist may point out that Lenin’s commitment to a classless, stateless, and harmonious communist society is a road paved by violence and subordination itself, and may further contend that such a road is ethically hypocritical and will inevitably reproduce such relations of violence and subordination perpetually. However, such ethical platitudes and logical formalities are impractical with reference to the actuality of revolution. Would we apply these platitudes to the enslaved and colonized who have no other means of liberating themselves than through fighting back against their enslavers and colonizers with equal force? As Leon Trotsky famously stated in Their Morals and Ours: The Class Foundations of Moral Practice:
A slave-owner who through cunning and violence shackles a slave in chains, and a slave who through cunning or violence breaks the chains – let not the contemptible eunuchs tell us that they are equals before a court of morality!
Within this process of revolutionary transformation from capitalism, to the dictatorship of the proletariat, and ultimately to a classless and stateless communist society, at what point does the state cease to exist? At what point is the state put, in Engels’s famous words, “into the museum of antiquities, next to the spinning wheel and the bronze ax?” Of course, the abolition of the state during the revolutionary transformation from capitalism to communism is not one that is cleanly laid out in any preordained blueprints. However, during this process —where the working-class seizes the means of production and further socializes them by establishing democratic control of the economy and society —the class stratification of capitalist society begins to wither away, and along with it, so does the state.
But which “state” exactly withers away during this process? The capitalist state? No. Because the capitalist state along with its bodies of armed men, police, prisons, and military that comprise it have already been smashed during the initial stages of the proletarian revolution. Instead, what withers away is the proletarian state —the dictatorship of the proletariat. The social function of the proletarian state is to act as its predecessor's antithesis: “as a ‘special repressive force’ of the proletariat for the suppression of the bourgeoisie.” It is during the lower phase of communism and still later the higher phase of communism where we begin to see the proletarian state wither away.
The lower phase of communism is defined by “the mere conversion of the means of production into the common property of the whole society.” During this lower phase of communism, the dictatorship of the proletariat fulfills an administrative role overseeing the “quantity of labor and the quantity of consumption” of society. This is necessary because the initial phase of converting the means of production into the common property of the whole society does not immediately “remove the defects of distribution and inequality of “bourgeoise right” which continue to rule as long as the products are divided “according to work performed.”
It is not until the higher phase of communism that the state will wither away completely:
The state will be able to wither away completely when society has realized the rule: “From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs,” i.e., when people have become accustomed to observe the fundamental rules of social life, and their labor is so productive, that they voluntarily work according to their ability.
It is not until the means of production have been fully, thoroughly, and democratically socialized into the control of the free and equal association of producers —that is, the material abolition of class antagonisms —that the state will cease to exist. Following from the state being the product of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms, insofar as those class antagonisms have been fully vanquished from existence by means of socialist revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat, the state has no economic foundation to stand on. Thus, as Engels stated in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State:
Along with [the classes] the state will inevitably fall. Society, which will reorganize production on the basis of a free and equal association of the producers, will put the whole machinery of state where it will then belong: into the museum of antiquity, by the side of the spinning-wheel and the bronze ax.
Lenin’s theory of the capitalist state, bourgeois democracy, and the need for a dictatorship of the proletariat during the revolutionary transition from capitalism to communism offer essential insights for socialists today. Most immediately, Lenin’s theory highlights the need for building militant and politically independent socialist organizations composed of the most advanced sections of the working and oppressed masses.
In the US today, the so-called “left” consists of a hodgepodge of single-issue oriented non-profit organizations, progressive politicians who are boring from within the Democratic Party carrying the naive belief that they can make far-reaching material changes for working people through electoralism, and various anarchist or otherwise “radical” networks of friends whose anti-organizational strategies are reduced to gatekeeping Signal chats and trying to control social movements through “security detachments” and police liaisons.
Notably, the Democratic Socialists of America, despite harboring a variety of political tendencies within it, has been the political champion of renouncing the revolutionary road to socialism as envisioned by Lenin in State and Revolution. The DSA has helped resuscitate the electoral road to socialism in the US, contending that the novelty of US bourgeois political institutions and today’s historical context make the revolutionary transformation of society a dream of the past. On the contrary, the sheer size and sophistication of the US bourgeois state, its bureaucracy, police, prisons, and military apparatuses make its revolutionary toppling all the more necessary. Lenin’s summation of the revolutionary Marxist view of the role of the state and the significance of revolution can offer contemporary radicals a framework to achieve the communist dream once and for all.