The Actuality of the Revolution: Reflections on Lenin’s State and Revolution

This is a slight­ly edit­ed ver­sion of a talk deliv­ered at the Left Forum on March 18, for a pan­el called “State and Rev­o­lu­tion: Is Lenin Still Rel­e­vant?” (You can lis­ten to the audio of the pan­el here.) We have post­ed a few more arti­cles debat­ing this his­to­ry and its impli­ca­tions for the present: see the respons­es by Todd Chre­tienMal­colm Har­ris, and Pham Binh, with a final respon­se by Mohan­desi.

Ivan Puni, “Armed work­ers in a motor­car”

By the first days of July 1917, ten­sions in the Rus­sian cap­i­tal were the high­est they had been since the Feb­ru­ary Rev­o­lu­tion that deposed the Tsar, announced a Pro­vi­sion­al Gov­ern­ment, and gave birth to a new wave of sovi­ets. On the third of July, this ten­sion final­ly explod­ed as postal work­ers sud­den­ly went on strike, the work­ers in the Vyborg Fac­to­ry Dis­trict began to stir, and the mil­i­tant First Machine Gun Reg­i­ment launched a plot to over­throw the Pro­vi­sion­al Gov­ern­ment. The upris­ing, which was entire­ly unknown to the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee of the Bol­she­vik Par­ty, reached its peak the next day. Demon­stra­tors were now joined by sailors from Kro­n­stadt, near­ly thir­ty thou­sand work­ers from the Putilov Plant, and sol­diers from a num­ber of rebel­lious reg­i­ments. All told, over half a mil­lion insur­gents were now march­ing again­st the Pro­vi­sion­al Gov­ern­ment.

The Gov­ern­ment, for its part, was per­haps in its most hope­less state since its for­ma­tion. The Kadets, or the Con­sti­tu­tion­al Democ­rats, had walked out just two days pri­or over pol­i­cy dis­agree­ments on the Ukraine; the his­tor­i­cal­ly loy­al Pet­ro­grad Gar­rison could no longer be relied upon for assis­tance; and the Baltic Fleet flat­ly refused orders to block off Kro­n­stadt. In sum, the state found itself suf­fer­ing its most seri­ous legit­i­ma­cy cri­sis at the pre­cise moment when the largest upris­ing since Feb­ru­ary was call­ing for its imme­di­ate over­throw.

But while most his­to­ri­ans agree that the vast major­i­ty of those who took to the streets that day had in mind noth­ing short of over­throw­ing the Pro­vi­sion­al Gov­ern­ment, arrest­ing its min­is­ters, and imme­di­ate­ly trans­fer­ring all pow­er to the sovi­ets, it was also clear that they were uncer­tain as to pre­cise­ly how this should be done. Their uncer­tain­ty led them to invade the Sovi­et Exec­u­tive Com­mit­tees, force this body to delib­er­ate the trans­fer of pow­er, and wait for some kind of solu­tion. But the Exec­u­tive Com­mit­tees, mod­er­ate, inde­ci­sive, and increas­ing­ly unre­li­able, could not decide whether to call for a new Pro­vi­sion­al Gov­ern­ment or hand pow­er direct­ly to the Sovi­ets, and argued until the ear­ly hours of the morn­ing. The mass­es grew weary, work­ers began to trick­le away, and a heavy down­pour final­ly decom­posed the crowd back into its con­stituent ele­ments. The upris­ing had already under­mined itself before loy­al rein­force­ments began mak­ing it back to the city from the front­li­nes.

The rea­son for this defeat, as many of those who par­tic­i­pat­ed that day them­selves rec­og­nized, was the absence of a bind­ing ele­ment. All of a sud­den, dis­tinct lay­ers of the work­ing mass­es had spon­ta­neous­ly come togeth­er, tak­en to the streets, and voiced their unit­ed oppo­si­tion to the Pro­vi­sion­al Gov­ern­ment, but some polit­i­cal form had to be found in order to make that encoun­ter “take hold.” The mass­es them­selves knew this, which is pre­cise­ly why the Kro­n­stadt sailors made an impor­tant detour before regroup­ing with the main demon­stra­tion in front of the Tau­ri­da Palace. They went to find Lenin.

Lenin, who had been in Fin­land recov­er­ing from anoth­er one of his famous bursts of over­work when the upris­ing began, returned to the city only hours before the sailors arrived at the Bol­she­vik head­quar­ters. Unpre­pared, unde­cid­ed, and still unsure about sup­port­ing the whole affair, Lenin at first refused to speak to the ten thou­sand or so insur­gents gath­er­ing out­side. He even­tu­al­ly relent­ed, made his way to the bal­cony, and deliv­ered his last pub­lic speech until after Octo­ber. It was ambigu­ous, desul­to­ry, and, by all accounts, a great dis­ap­point­ment. The sailors had come to hear a clear pro­gram for action and left with noth­ing but vague warn­ings about self-restraint, vig­i­lance, and dis­ci­pline.

Lenin him­self was uncer­tain. Mikhail Kalin­in recalls how he asked Lenin that day whether the upris­ing could grow into a seizure of pow­er. Lenin respond­ed: “we shall see - right now it is impos­si­ble to say!”1 This was no doubt a curi­ous answer for the lead­er of the pro­le­tar­i­an van­guard. It was Lenin’s duty to know what his forces were up to. Instead, he had been caught off-guard. The sore truth is that the par­ty, with Lenin at its head, had mis­read the capa­bil­i­ties, inten­tions, and polit­i­cal com­po­si­tion of the work­ing class. It had failed to grasp what Georg Lukács would lat­er call, “the actu­al­i­ty of the rev­o­lu­tion,” which is to say, the real­iza­tion that rev­o­lu­tion had already been forced onto the table as an immi­nent real­i­ty by the class strug­gle itself.2

There may be sev­er­al rea­sons why Lenin was unable to antic­i­pate the tru­ly rev­o­lu­tion­ary project implic­it in the strug­gles of the work­ing class at that moment. First, and per­haps most sim­ply, Lenin had under­es­ti­mat­ed the mil­i­tan­cy, readi­ness, and polit­i­cal matu­ri­ty of the mass­es in the weeks lead­ing up to the July days. The peri­od extend­ing from the ten­th of June to the third of July was in fact marked by the high­est lev­el of dis­con­tent since the fall of the Tsar in Feb­ru­ary: strikes, walk­outs, and shut­downs became reg­u­lar occur­rences in the cities; mutinies, deser­tions, and a gen­er­al sense of insub­or­di­na­tion char­ac­ter­ized the front; and peas­ants were start­ing to direct­ly social­ize the land in the coun­tryside. “The real mis­take of our Par­ty on July 3-4, as events now reveal,” Lenin lat­er wrote in a ret­ro­spec­tive analy­sis, was “that the Par­ty con­sid­ered the gen­er­al sit­u­a­tion in the coun­try less rev­o­lu­tion­ary than it proved to be, that the Par­ty still con­sid­ered a peace­ful devel­op­ment of polit­i­cal changes pos­si­ble through alter­ation in the Sovi­ets’ poli­cies, where­as in real­i­ty the Men­she­viks and S.R.’s had become so much entan­gled and bound by com­pro­mis­ing with the bour­geoisie, and the bour­geoisie had become so coun­ter-rev­o­lu­tion­ary, that peace­ful devel­op­ment was no longer pos­si­ble.”3

Sec­ond, it is like­ly that Lenin that had been unable to prop­er­ly account for the rapid­ly chang­ing class com­po­si­tion of his own par­ty. Pet­ro­grad par­ty mem­ber­ship increased from two thou­sand in Feb­ru­ary to over thir­ty-two thou­sand in late June; in just a mat­ter of months the Bol­she­viks went from being a small, pro­fes­sion­al, clan­des­tine orga­ni­za­tion of com­mit­ted rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies to a ver­i­ta­ble mass par­ty of fac­to­ry work­ers and new­ly-recruit­ed sol­diers drawn from the peas­antry. Most of the­se new mem­bers were mil­i­tant, undis­ci­plined, and impa­tient, often­times strik­ing out on their own, act­ing autonomous­ly, and fla­grant­ly dis­re­gard­ing orders from the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee in a way that pro­duced a sharp rift between the base and the lead­er­ship. While the more con­ser­v­a­tive par­ty lead­ers were busi­ly try­ing to decide whether to sup­port the demon­stra­tions, for instance, much of the rank and file was already in the streets fight­ing bat­tles, storm­ing the Peter and Paul fortress, and autonomous­ly recon­nect­ing with oth­er seg­ments of the work­ing class, all while call­ing for the imme­di­ate over­throw of the Pro­vi­sion­al Gov­ern­ment.

Last­ly, it seems that Lenin had been far too con­cerned with keep­ing the par­ty lead­er­ship togeth­er, instead of seri­ous­ly con­tem­plat­ing a rev­o­lu­tion­ary seizure of pow­er. In April, in fact on the very day he returned to Pet­ro­grad, the Bol­she­viks were seri­ous­ly con­sid­er­ing reuni­fi­ca­tion with the Men­she­viks. In oth­er words, the very exis­tence of the Bol­she­viks, as the dis­tinct van­guard of the pro­le­tari­at, was under threat. Lenin was able to keep the par­ty togeth­er only at the cost of sac­ri­ficing the clar­i­ty and con­crete­ness of the par­ty pro­gram, inten­tion­al­ly leav­ing the ques­tion of the rev­o­lu­tion, of the direct seizure of pow­er, ambigu­ous so as to appease both the left and right fac­tions with­in his par­ty. But when the time final­ly came for the par­ty to act in a clear, con­crete, and deter­mined man­ner, to make a res­olute deci­sion on the pos­si­bil­i­ties of direct­ly seiz­ing pow­er and mak­ing the rev­o­lu­tion, the par­ty lead­er­ship found itself unpre­pared and divid­ed.

The result was a crip­pling blow to the Bol­she­viks. Though we might be led, here in the present, to down­play the seri­ous­ness of this defeat, since we all know that the Bol­she­viks would recov­er their forces for a vic­to­ry some four months lat­er, for con­tem­po­raries the July days rep­re­sent­ed an unmit­i­gat­ed dis­as­ter. The Bol­she­viks were crushed, much of the lead­er­ship was impris­oned, Lenin fled into hid­ing, the mil­i­tant sol­diers who led the upris­ing were all dis­patched to the front, and a hor­ri­ble peri­od of reac­tion began to set it. For all intents and pur­pos­es, the Bol­she­viks had missed their chance, and the oppor­tu­ni­ty to make a com­mu­nist rev­o­lu­tion would be closed forever. No one then could fore­see any of the tur­bu­lent events, like the Kornilov affair, that would even­tu­al­ly tran­spire to give the Bol­she­viks anoth­er chance.

His­to­ri­ans have cer­tain­ly debat­ed whether the July days could have actu­al­ly pro­duced a sus­tain­able rev­o­lu­tion if the par­ty lead­er­ship had unre­served­ly tak­en the ini­tia­tive instead of vac­il­lat­ing as they did. My argu­ment, how­ev­er, is not that vic­to­ry would have been cer­tain had the Bol­she­viks prop­er­ly antic­i­pat­ed the rev­o­lu­tion­ary poten­tial of the mass­es in the weeks lead­ing up to July – though it should be not­ed in pass­ing that the chances were quite good, as some rank­ing Bol­she­viks would them­selves admit after the fact – but rather that the par­ty lead­er­ship, with Lenin at the top, by insuf­fi­cient­ly grasp­ing the view­point of the pro­le­tari­at, had mis­di­ag­nosed the sit­u­a­tion, under­es­ti­mat­ed the poten­tial of the class, and there­fore found itself unpre­pared when the mass­es them­selves thrust the real­i­ty, in fact the absolute neces­si­ty, of vio­lent rev­o­lu­tion onto the agen­da.

Lenin, who was one of the first to admit the seri­ous­ness of this defeat, imme­di­ate­ly drew the prop­er lessons from the cat­a­stro­phe. The class had forced the actu­al­i­ty of the rev­o­lu­tion; now it was up to the par­ty to draft a new pro­gram that could real­ize the project pro­posed by those whose inter­ests it pur­port­ed to advance. In a set of the­ses pre­pared for an emer­gen­cy strat­e­gy ses­sion of the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee on July 10, Lenin adum­brat­ed the rudi­ments of a new pro­gram, bold­ly announc­ing that the trans­fer of pow­er from the Pro­vi­sion­al Gov­ern­ment to the sovi­ets could no longer be a peace­ful one, that vio­lent rev­o­lu­tion was now not only a pos­si­bil­i­ty but in fact a neces­si­ty, and that the par­ty had to imme­di­ate­ly begin prepar­ing itself for a deci­sive strug­gle. It was a clear break from his posi­tion before July, star­tling many of the oth­er Bol­she­viks, and open­ing up a fierce debate with­in the par­ty. As his­to­ri­an Alexan­der Rabi­now­itch puts it: “In effect, this may have been Lenin’s first open affir­ma­tion of the absolute neces­si­ty of a direct seizure of pow­er by the Bol­she­viks, to be exe­cut­ed at the first suit­able moment in the not-too-dis­tant future.”4 Lenin, present­ly in hid­ing, now set him­self the task of for­mal­iz­ing this new posi­tion into a new pro­gram for a new con­junc­ture. And since the expe­ri­ence of July had turned the ques­tion of state pow­er into the cen­tral prob­lem, both in prac­tice and in the­o­ry, it is no sur­prise that Lenin’s pro­gram would take the form of a dis­qui­si­tion on the state. The result, of course, was State and Rev­o­lu­tion.

Although the bulk of the pam­phlet that would be even­tu­al­ly pub­lished as State and Rev­o­lu­tion was writ­ten in August and Sep­tem­ber of 1917, as Lenin lat­er remarked in his post­script to the first edi­tion, it should be not­ed that he began col­lect­ing notes as ear­ly as the sec­ond half of 1916, and actu­al­ly start­ed writ­ing an essay called “Marx­ism and the State,” by Jan­u­ary 1917. The blue-cov­ered copy­book, which was left behind in Stock­holm when Lenin made the trip back to Rus­sia in April of 1917, did not actu­al­ly make it back into his hands until July. There is a temp­ta­tion, then, to see State and Rev­o­lu­tion as sim­ply the cul­mi­na­tion of the project first out­lined in 1916, which would there­fore imply that the text is not so much a pro­duct of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary peri­od, but rather, a project from the pre-rev­o­lu­tion­ary days, whose col­la­tion, revi­sion, and com­ple­tion was sim­ply delayed by the course of his­to­ry.

But just as we should avoid mis­take of read­ing the his­to­ry of the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion teleog­i­cal­ly, so too should we be on guard again­st such a read­ing of State and Rev­o­lu­tion. Just as we can­not deceive our­selves into believ­ing that defeat in July would inevitably lead to vic­to­ry in Octo­ber, so too must we avoid the idea that State and Rev­o­lu­tion was the text Lenin intend­ed to write in 1916. Indeed, in between the­se moments, the win­ter of 1916 on the one hand and August of 1917 on the oth­er, lay an entire rev­o­lu­tion. When Lenin sat down to write State and Rev­o­lu­tion in August of 1917 he had some­thing entire­ly dif­fer­ent in mind than when he start­ed draft­ing “Marx­ism and the State” in the win­ter of 1916. Although some of the raw mate­ri­als were col­lect­ed before the rev­o­lu­tion, the text we now know as State and Rev­o­lu­tion was entire­ly a pro­duct of the con­junc­ture that came into being after the rev­o­lu­tion, and more specif­i­cal­ly, after the July Days. Its inten­tions, objec­tives, and prob­lem­at­ic were a pro­duct of the cycle of strug­gle that emerged after the defeat in July. As Lenin wrote soon after that defeat:

The cycle of devel­op­ment of the class and par­ty strug­gle in Rus­sia from Feb­ru­ary 27 to July 4 is com­plete. A new cycle is begin­ning, one that involves not the old class­es, not the old par­ties, not the old Sovi­ets, but class­es, par­ties and Sovi­ets reju­ve­nat­ed in the fire of strug­gle, tem­pered, schooled and refash­ioned by the process of the strug­gle. We must look for­ward, not back­ward. We must oper­ate not with the old, but with the new, post-July, class and par­ty cat­e­gories.5

State and Rev­o­lu­tion is in large part an attempt to refash­ion the­se new cat­e­gories, rethink the changed polit­i­cal com­po­si­tion of the pro­le­tari­at, and reex­am­ine the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a seizure of state pow­er.

So although State and Rev­o­lu­tion deals in large part with the state, it is actu­al­ly about the neces­si­ty, char­ac­ter, and form of the pro­le­tar­i­an rev­o­lu­tion. As I have shown above, the great­est lesson Lenin learned from July was that the pro­le­tari­at was actu­al­ly more polit­i­cal­ly devel­oped than he had expect­ed; it had already put the ques­tion of the rev­o­lu­tion on the table and con­crete­ly demand­ed the seizure of pow­er – in fact, it had already put forth the actu­al­i­ty of the rev­o­lu­tion. State and Rev­o­lu­tion rep­re­sents Lenin’s attempt to artic­u­late that actu­al­i­ty at the lev­el of the­o­ry, advance a pro­gram that would res­onate with the changed polit­i­cal com­po­si­tion of the pro­le­tari­at, and antic­i­pate the future con­tours of the class strug­gle in a way that would allow the par­ty to take the ini­tia­tive by deci­sive­ly inter­ven­ing in the class strug­gle, rather than sit­ting by as events sim­ply unfold­ed, as they did in July. He want­ed to be pre­pared in case anoth­er oppor­tu­ni­ty pre­sent­ed itself. So in Octo­ber, when the par­ty was given “anoth­er chance,” there was no longer any hes­i­ta­tion. Lenin would not think to him­self, “right now it is impos­si­ble to say”; instead, we would be armed with a clear pro­gram, a plan, a line of action.

Real­iz­ing that project, how­ev­er, nec­es­sar­i­ly involved, at that his­tor­i­cal moment, an attempt to devel­op a con­crete the­o­ry of the state, pre­cise­ly because July had already made the ques­tion of the state para­mount. State and Rev­o­lu­tion would be the attempt to defin­i­tive­ly show, by way of an inves­ti­ga­tion into the state form, that only a vio­lent rev­o­lu­tion could replace the bour­geois state with a pro­le­tar­i­an one. The final line of the pref­ace, which Lenin penned in August of 1917, express­es the objec­tive of the entire book­let: “The ques­tion of the rela­tion of the social­ist pro­le­tar­i­an rev­o­lu­tion to the state, there­fore, is acquir­ing not only prac­ti­cal impor­tance, but also the sig­nif­i­cance of a most urgent prob­lem of the day, the prob­lem of explain­ing to the mass­es what they will have to do before long to free them­selves from cap­i­tal­ist tyran­ny.”6

Con­se­quent­ly, despite its form of pre­sen­ta­tion, the pri­ma­ry objec­tive of State and Rev­o­lu­tion is not the schol­ar­ly exe­ge­sis of the works of Marx and Engels on the state but the pro­duc­tion of the pro­le­tar­i­an rev­o­lu­tion. Given that much of the text is a long com­men­tary on Marx and Engels, there is the dan­ger of read­ing the text as Lenin’s attempt to provide the defin­i­tive Marx­ist account of the state by stick­ing as faith­ful­ly as pos­si­ble to the essen­tial teach­ings of the mas­ters. But if we look close­ly, it’s clear that Lenin does not at all com­pose a faith­ful, dis­in­ter­est­ed, or objec­tive intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry. Lenin gives a rather biased read­ing, pick­ing phras­es from here and there, offer­ing very lib­er­al inter­pre­ta­tions of cer­tain pas­sages, and, to put it blunt­ly, dis­tort­ing Marx and Engels almost as much as Bern­stein or Kaut­sky, the fig­ures he attacks in State and Rev­o­lu­tion pre­cise­ly for their own dis­tor­tions of the pure teach­ings of Marx and Engels. Far from offer­ing a loy­al pre­sen­ta­tion of the Marx­ist the­o­ry of the state, Lenin is care­ful­ly extract­ing out of Marx and Engels those ele­ments nec­es­sary for prop­er­ly the­o­riz­ing the actu­al­i­ty of the rev­o­lu­tion in his own time.

As he put it ear­lier in 1917: “For the present, it is essen­tial to grasp the incon­testable truth that a Marx­ist must take cog­nizance of real life, of the true facts of real­i­ty, and not cling to a the­o­ry of yes­ter­day, which, like all the­o­ries, at best only out­li­nes the main and the gen­er­al, only comes near to embrac­ing life in all its com­plex­i­ty.”7 Instead of fideli­ty to a the­o­ry of yes­ter­day, Lenin aims for the con­crete­ness of the present sit­u­a­tion, a task which may at times call a delib­er­ate trans­gres­sion of those past the­o­ries. The fun­da­men­tal­ly his­tor­i­cal, and there­fore pro­vi­sion­al, char­ac­ter of all the­se the­o­ries includes that of State and Rev­o­lu­tion itself. It is ulti­mate­ly a pro­gram hur­ried­ly thrown togeth­er in order to pre­pare Lenin for the task of mak­ing a rev­o­lu­tion in case anoth­er oppor­tu­ni­ty were to present itself. It is tem­po­rary, con­di­tion­al, inten­tion­al­ly left open.

Indeed, it is no won­der that Lenin actu­al­ly nev­er fin­ished the text. As he wrote in the famous Post­face: “I was ‘inter­rupt­ed’ by a polit­i­cal cri­sis – the eve of the Octo­ber Rev­o­lu­tion of 1917.”8 The humor can­not be lost on us: prac­tice did not inter­rupt the­o­ry; the the­o­ry found its fit­ting con­clu­sion in the prac­tice of rev­o­lu­tion. With its pur­pose served, Lenin saw no rea­son to go back and fin­ish off that which was always intend­ed to be pro­vi­sion­al any­way. The pam­phlet kept its unfin­ished form, final­ly appear­ing in print in 1918, in a changed his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture marked by changed needs.

Given this pro­vi­sion­al char­ac­ter, then, and rec­og­niz­ing its his­tor­i­cal­ly con­di­tion­al pur­pose, how rel­e­vant is State and Rev­o­lu­tion to us today? On the one hand, not a great deal, since his­tor­i­cal con­di­tions have changed so much as to ren­der that text large­ly inad­e­quate to our needs in the present. State and Rev­o­lu­tion, as I have tried to show, should not be read as the defin­i­tive Marx­ist the­o­ry of the state, applic­a­ble any­where and at all times, but rather as a his­tor­i­cal pro­gram for a his­tor­i­cal class that hap­pened to take the form of an exeget­i­cal, at times polem­i­cal, dis­qui­si­tion on the state; just as, for instance, the Man­i­festo of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty is not the defin­i­tive Marx­ist the­o­ry of his­to­ry, but rather anoth­er his­tor­i­cal pro­gram for anoth­er his­tor­i­cal class that hap­pened to take the form of an his­tor­i­cal, at times polem­i­cal, nar­ra­tive of the class strug­gle.

But if this is the case, then do those texts, whose projects have been clear­ly obvi­at­ed by the sub­se­quent course of his­to­ry, no longer hold any val­ue for us in present? Not quite; indeed, they can be invalu­able, but their val­ue can only be unlocked after we have first learned how to read them. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, it is none oth­er than Lenin him­self, in State and Rev­o­lu­tion, who pro­vides us the key to such a read­ing. When Lenin read Marx, he did so not under the impres­sion that Marx had bequeathed a num­ber of invari­ant the­o­ries to pos­ter­i­ty, but rather that he had writ­ten a con­geries of pro­grams all tied to con­crete his­tor­i­cal moments in the class strug­gle. Speak­ing of Marx’s Eigh­teen­th Bru­maire of Louis Napoleon, for instance, Lenin com­ments in State and Rev­o­lu­tion that such a work was not the pro­duct of “log­i­cal rea­son­ing,” but of “actu­al devel­op­ments, the actu­al expe­ri­ence of 1848-1851.”9 For Lenin, all of Marx’s work was a the­o­ret­i­cal “sum­ming up”10 of the most recent con­crete pro­le­tar­i­an expe­ri­ences in a way that would pre­pare him for a deci­sive inter­ven­tion in future strug­gles.

And so we must try to read Lenin the way Lenin read Marx. We must use State and Rev­o­lu­tion as an entry point into Lenin’s mode of oper­at­ing, his under­stand­ing of the rela­tion­ship between the­o­ry and prac­tice, his esti­ma­tion of the role of com­mu­nist the­o­ry. Lenin always looked to access­ing, artic­u­lat­ing, and advanc­ing the pro­le­tar­i­an view­point at the lev­el of the­o­ry. This meant close­ly read­ing the com­po­si­tion of the pro­le­tari­at in order to dis­cov­er the polit­i­cal project already implic­it in its strug­gles, using that inquiry to fash­ion a polit­i­cal pro­gram capa­ble of mak­ing that project explic­it, and then con­cretiz­ing that pro­gram in a way that would allow him to antic­i­pate the next moves in the strug­gle. This is the real mean­ing of prac­tic­ing the art of pol­i­tics: match­ing an his­tor­i­cal­ly speci­fic pro­gram to an his­tor­i­cal­ly speci­fic class. This is what we must relearn from Lenin today.

1. Quot­ed in Alexan­der Rabi­now­itch, Pre­lude to Rev­o­lu­tion: The Pet­ro­grad Bol­she­viks and the July 1917 Upris­ing (Bloom­ing­ton: The Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1968), 184.

2. Georg Lukács, Lenin: A Study on the Uni­ty of His Thought (Lon­don: Ver­so, 2009), 9-13.

3. V. I. Lenin, “Draft Res­o­lu­tion on the Present Polit­i­cal Sit­u­a­tion,” Col­lect­ed Works, Vol­ume 25: June-Sep­tem­ber 1917 (Moscow: Pro­gress Pub­lish­ers, 1964), 313.

4. Alexan­der Rabi­now­itch, Pre­lude to Rev­o­lu­tion: The Pet­ro­grad Bol­she­viks and the July 1917 Upris­ing (Bloom­ing­ton: The Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1968, 216).

5. Lenin, “On Slo­gans,” Col­lect­ed Works, Vol­ume 25, 190.

6. Lenin, “State and Rev­o­lu­tion,” Col­lect­ed Works, Vol­ume 25, 384.

7. Lenin, “Let­ters on Tac­tics, First Let­ter: Assess­ment of the Present Sit­u­a­tion,” Col­lect­ed Works, Vol­ume 24: April-June 1917 (Moscow: Pro­gress Pub­lish­ers, 1964), 45.

8. Lenin, “State and Rev­o­lu­tion,” Col­lect­ed Works, Vol­ume 25, 492.

9. Lenin, “State and Rev­o­lu­tion,” Col­lect­ed Works, Vol­ume 25, 409.

10. Lenin, “State and Rev­o­lu­tion,” Col­lect­ed Works, Vol­ume 25, 405.

Author of the article

is a founding editor of Viewpoint and a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Pennsylvania.

12 Responses

  1. Jesus del Rio
    Jesus del Rio at |

    Dif­fi­cult to argue with this. Lenin did indeed keep enough dis­tance from the­o­ry to enable him to act accord­ing to the rev­o­lu­tion­ary needs of the moment. In this, he was a true dis­ci­ple of Marx and Engels and had made “Marx­ism is not a dog­ma, but a guide to action” his guid­ing max­im. Thank you for this great post and for con­tin­u­ing the anti-dog­mat­ic Lenin­ist approach to rev­o­lu­tion.

  2. Virindi
    Virindi at |

    “State and Rev­o­lu­tion” was Lenin’s suc­cess­ful attempt to gath­er sup­port from the mass­es who were much too libertarian/anarchist left. He kept his par­ty in line dur­ing this time and tried to min­i­mize the author­i­tar­i­an ele­ments. Upon tak­ing pow­er (crush­ing the con­stituent assem­bly and dis­man­tling union’s/soviet’s auton­o­my) he quick­ly moved back to the author­i­tar­i­an right that could be read about in “What is to be done”.

    1. Ross Wolfe
      Ross Wolfe at |

      This almost seems a word-for-word repeat of a com­ment Chom­sky once made on the Bol­she­viks. I find it strange that you claim Lenin attempt­ed to dis­man­tle union auton­o­my, since he engaged in such a long and sus­tained debate with Trot­skii in the ear­ly 1920s (Trot­skii was even­tu­al­ly won over) argu­ing for the con­tin­ued auton­o­my and inde­pen­dence of the unions from Par­ty lead­er­ship and the struc­tures of the State.

  3. Gorky
    Gorky at |


  4. Mark
    Mark at |

    Very inter­est­ing arti­cle - and I think your empha­sis on the inter­ac­tion between Lenin’s thought, objec­tive cir­cum­stances and the sub­jec­tive devel­op­ments in the work­ing class is refresh­ing. But the argu­ment that it was pos­si­ble to seize pow­er in the “July Days” I’m less sure about. My under­stand­ing has always been that Lenin thought a seizure of pow­er in Pet­ro­grad was pos­si­ble but that the mass of the work­ing class, sol­diers and peas­ants in the rest of Rus­sia were not yet ready to do like­wise. Pet­ro­grad would have been left iso­lat­ed - anoth­er Paris Com­mune, in all like­li­hood des­tined for defeat. Here’s Lenin a cou­ple of months lat­er: “It would have been wrong if the Bol­she­viks had aimed to seize pow­er on 3-4 July, since nei­ther the major­i­ty of the peo­ple nor even the major­i­ty of the work­ers at that time had yet actu­al­ly expe­ri­enced the coun­ter-rev­o­lu­tion­ary poli­cies of the gen­er­als in the army, of the landown­ers in the coun­tryside, and of the cap­i­tal­ists in the town.” (Lenin, Col­lect­ed Works, vol.25). The August coup attempt led by Kornilov - defeat­ed by a mass mobil­i­sa­tion which the Bol­she­viks were cen­tral to - was the tip­ping point in con­vinc­ing a major­i­ty that they had to seize pow­er. This was also reflect­ed in a deci­sive shift towards sup­port for the Bol­she­viks inside the sovi­ets etc.

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  7. Occupy the Russian Revolution « Viewpoint Magazine

    […] is the last of a series of arti­cles debat­ing Salar Mohandesi’s “The Actu­al­i­ty of Rev­o­lu­tion: Reflec­tions on Lenin’s State and Rev­o­lu­tion.” Also see the ear­lier respons­es by Todd Chre­tien and Mal­colm Har­ris. Mohandesi’s respon­se […]

  8. Paresh Chattopadhyay
    Paresh Chattopadhyay at |

    The Bol­she­viks under Lenin (always arro­gat­ing to them­selves the right to the lead­er­ship of the work­ing class and sub­sti­tut­ing the Par­ty for the class- the lead­ers themselves,a group of rad­i­cal­ized intelligentsia,unelected and unre­callable by the work­ing peo­ple) seized pow­er not from the pro­vi­sion­al gov­ern­ment but from the sovi­ets, the self gov­ern­ing organs cre­at­ed by the work­ing peo­ple them­selves on the mor­row of the eman­ci­pa­to­ry mass upris­ing a few months earlier.And they seized pow­er inde­pen­dent­ly of the sovi­ets and at the back of the soviets.Thus going again­st the work­ers’ pro­found rev­o­lu­tion­ary cur­rent, by a pre­emp­tive strike they suc­ceed­ed in destroy­ing all pos­si­bil­i­ties of the work­ers’ march­ing towards a real social­ist revolution.The sovi­ets them­selves as the self gov­ern­ing organs of the toil­ing peo­ple- like the work­ers’ fac­to­ry com­mit­tees went through a radioac­tive decay and evap­o­rat­ed with­in a few months.So, how should one char­ac­ter­ize the Bol­she­vik lead­er­ship? Of course a group of coun­ter rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies.
    As to the brochure State and Rev­o­lu­tion it was the grave­yard of all of Marx’s eman­ci­pa­to­ry ideas.

  9. Ross Wolfe
    Ross Wolfe at |

    The exchange over this sub­ject has been inter­est­ing. I tend to agree with Pham Binh’s per­spec­tive the most, though many of the points made in this pre­sen­ta­tion are com­mend­able, in terms of both their clar­i­ty and exi­gen­cy.

    That said, I believe there is a risk, in Salar’s account, of reduc­ing Lenin’s role here (and the rela­tion­ship of the­o­ry to prac­tice in gen­er­al) to that of a vul­gar empiri­cist. In oth­er words, the­o­ry would seem to become noth­ing more than the accu­mu­la­tion of tac­tics, whose prac­ti­cal effi­ca­cy is estab­lished on a tri­al-and-error basis. There is also the gen­er­al prob­lem that sub­jec­tive con­scious­ness tends to “lag” behind devel­op­ments in the objec­tive con­di­tions of exis­tence, and aris­es only post fes­tum, so to speak.

    This is, broad­ly con­ceived, the prob­lem Lenin described ear­lier as “tail­ism.” Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Marx­ism has almost always been known for its sense of his­tor­i­cal con­scious­ness, but all the expe­ri­ence in the world will not nec­es­sar­i­ly prove ade­quate to one’s own moment, espe­cial­ly when faced with the qual­i­ta­tive­ly new or unprece­dent­ed.

    Also, while there is prob­a­bly some valid­i­ty to Salar’s sug­ges­tions here, I would hes­i­tate to use this case to ele­vate the innate mil­i­tan­cy of the work­ing class to a rule:

    it is like­ly that Lenin that had been unable to prop­er­ly account for the rapid­ly chang­ing class com­po­si­tion of his own par­ty. Pet­ro­grad par­ty mem­ber­ship increased from two thou­sand in Feb­ru­ary to over thir­ty-two thou­sand in late June; in just a mat­ter of months the Bol­she­viks went from being a small, pro­fes­sion­al, clan­des­tine orga­ni­za­tion of com­mit­ted rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies to a ver­i­ta­ble mass par­ty of fac­to­ry work­ers and new­ly-recruit­ed sol­diers drawn from the peas­antry. Most of the­se new mem­bers were mil­i­tant, undis­ci­plined, and impa­tient, often­times strik­ing out on their own, act­ing autonomous­ly, and fla­grant­ly dis­re­gard­ing orders from the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee in a way that pro­duced a sharp rift between the base and the lead­er­ship.

    Class con­scious­ness, at least in the Lukác­sean sense, is not soci­o­log­i­cal­ly deter­mined. Hence the com­mon dis­tinc­tion between the work­ing class as a socioe­co­nom­ic cat­e­go­ry and the pro­le­tari­at as a con­scious­ly polit­i­cal cat­e­go­ry. “The pro­le­tari­at is rev­o­lu­tion­ary or it is noth­ing,” as the say­ing goes. The work­ing class at this speci­fic his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture was per­haps more mil­i­tant, vol­un­taris­tic, and itch­ing to foment rev­o­lu­tion than the vac­il­lat­ing Bol­she­vik lead­er­ship, as Salar asserts. But quite often mass work­ers’ move­ments end up being lim­it­ed to what Lenin some­times called “trade-union con­scious­ness,” if not being out­right con­ser­v­a­tive.

    1. Ross Wolfe
      Ross Wolfe at |

      Fur­ther­more, as an unabashed fan of Lukács’ Lenin: A Study in the Uni­ty of His Thought (1923, I believe), I’ve always found it help­ful to read Trotskii’s reflec­tions on the Lessons of Octo­ber (1924) alongside it. The two texts, I feel, are large­ly com­ple­men­tary. Though I’m sure you’d be loathe to get embroiled in a debate with sec­tar­i­an Trot­sky­ists (who wouldn’t be?), can I ask Salar what he makes of Trotskii’s med­i­ta­tion on the July Days in that text?

      Also, more gen­er­al­ly, though it doesn’t come up here specif­i­cal­ly, the old antin­o­my of intu­itive, spon­ta­neous action vs. self-con­scious orga­ni­za­tion seems to lurk in the back­ground here. This ten­sion with­in Marx­ist thought is quite famous­ly dealt with in What is to be Done? A few years ago, my friend Sunit Singh from Platy­pus urged me to do a write-up of a pre­sen­ta­tion I deliv­ered on the sub­ject: “Lenin and the Cri­tique of the Pol­i­tics of Spon­tane­ity in What is to be Done?

      Look­ing back, I must say the treat­ment I give it is a lit­tle dry and aca­d­e­mic, and may be of more inter­est to some­one who can read Rus­sian. But per­haps you might find it inter­est­ing or help­ful.

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