- Social Class and Social Revolution – 5pg
- The Paris Commune and Democracy – 7pg
- The Dictatorship of the Proletariat – 5pg
- Communism and the Complete Withering of the State – 7pg
When the Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Lenin sat down to write The State and Revolution between the years of 1916 and 1917 it was addressed to his fellow revolutionaries in 20th century Russia. The pamphlet tackles debates within the contemporary international Marxist workers movement surrounding how different social classes and the state work in the context of the struggle for socialism. Yet, the pamphlet remains a key text for Marxists even in the modern day who want to understand these very same issues.
In the time since Engels’s death, the movement he and Marx had begun, the Second International, was largely led by the principal leaders of one key section, the Social-Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). After being legalized, the party had begun to focus more on electoral activity and winning reforms from the German state. In 1891, the SPD issued a new program, known as the Erfurt Program, which became the basis for what was known as “Orthodox Marxism”, championed by Karl Kautsky. Under his leadership, many Marxists of Lenin’s time came to believe that calling for the destruction of the state was an anarchist position, not a Marxist one. Instead, they believed workers should seek to take hold of the existing state and use it for the purpose of constructing socialism. This new conception of the state was used by Social Democrats to justify further focus on reforms under the existing capitalist regime and Marx’s ideas about revolution were only trotted out for May Day rallies.
In Russia, Lenin had become a vocal critic of these ideas. When the Tsar was overthrown in 1917, many Marxists, drawing on the ideas of Kautsky and other German Social Democrats, believed that further struggle should take place within the framework of the new liberal Provisional Government of Alexander Kerensky. Lenin and the Bolsheviks instead advocated for the overthrow of the Provisional Government in a revolution led by the working class. This view obviously did little to endear Lenin to the new government, which shortly found an excuse to call for his arrest. As Lenin fled Kerensky’s agents, these debates were very much on his mind. By writing The State and Revolution Lenin attempted to resolve these questions and reestablish the ideas of Marx and Engels on the state.
In the book, Lenin, drawing heavily on the writings of Marx and Engels, argues that all states are the product of the struggle between classes. Indeed, he says that the state is merely the tool for the rule of one class by another class. This Marxist definition of the state repudiates the Social Democratic idea that the working class could take hold of the capitalist state. The capitalist state is, after-all, the apparatus the capitalist class uses in its rule over the working class. This is why Marx argued the bourgeois state needed to be destroyed in a working class revolution. In fact, according to Marx, all states in history, democratic or not, had been “dictatorships” of a minority class over a majority class.
This changed with the Paris Commune of 1871, when workers in the city of Paris overthrew the French government and established a state that represented working people in their struggle against the capitalist class. Marx in his writings, pointed to this innovation of the working class and called it “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Lenin, drawing on Marx and Engels’ writings about the Commune argues in State and Revolution that the goal of the working class after it has smashed the bourgeois state should be the establishment of such a workers state to defend the revolution. While the Paris Commune ultimately failed to save the revolution from defeat in 1871, Lenin hoped that in 1917 things could work out differently.
Yet, as Lenin clarifies, even though the working class needs to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat to defend itself, this is not the final step on the road to socialism. The workers state is merely a tool that the working class uses to establish complete democracy and end private property. Once the capitalist class has been totally defeated and its property totally expropriated, both the workers and capitalists will cease to exist as a class. In the place of the old society, classless socialism will develop based on a system of production which is collectively controlled by all people. With the end of class-society, there will no longer be a need for the state. Indeed, Lenin argues it will, in the words of Marx, “wither away” during the transition to socialism.
By clarifying these points in one pamphlet, Lenin did more than interject into the ongoing socialist debates of his time. The State and Revolution is a roadmap of the path to socialism. With this pamphlet Lenin clarifies the need to overthrow the capitalist state and replace it with a dictatorship of the proletariat which will, after fulfilling its purpose, eventually wither away as we advance into communist society. These issues were not just relevant in debates of Lenin’s era, they are at the heart of any struggle for socialism. This is the reason that The State and Revolution still remains relevant for every socialist militant and revolutionary up until the modern day.
The entirety of The State and Revolution can be found here courtesy of the Marxist Internet Archive