I’d like to discuss three slogans from Lenin.
The first one is: “All Power to the Soviets.” This is an exhortation that traces back to April 1917, the moment when the revolution had to choose between a path previously indicated by Lenin, the seizure of power by an organized vanguard, or the path of insurrection and the organization of the masses into councils – the soviets.
The second slogan dates from 1919: “Communism is Soviet power plus electrification.”1 It appeared at a moment when, after the soviets had gained power, the question on the agenda was the productive project and forms of life that the proletariat sought to construct under socialism.
The third slogan harkens back to the beginning of 1917, when Lenin, caught in Switzerland due to the imperialist war, starts to work on what would become State and Revolution (he will finish the book in August-September 1917), proposing the communist program of the dissolution of the state, its extinction. The slogan here is: “the withering away of the state.”
And so to begin: “All Power to the Soviets.”2 This is an absolutely lucid strategic indication, which projects the course of the revolution and the construction of socialism through the seizure of power by the soviets as mass organs. To cite Lenin: “The imperialist war was bound, with objective inevitability…to turn into a civil war between the hostile classes.”3 The soviet is the spontaneous product of this situation. I again refer to Lenin: “the embryo of a workers’ government, the representative of the interests of the entire mass of the poor section of the population, i.e., of nine-tenths of the population, which is striving for peace, bread and freedom.”4
The indication is thus crystal clear. But we, men and women of the 21st century, too often understand this as if it were an example of “revolutionary opportunism,” or indeed as an expression of the notion of “insurrection as an art” – in any case, as a brilliant, unexpected, and remarkable decision which reversed the line Lenin had prescribed to the party. With this slogan, in April 1917, Lenin – theoretician of the vanguard as the leader of mass movements and a party built on the industrial model of the modern factory – in fact radically modified the political line and delegitimized “at a distance” (since he was still outside of Russia) the Moscow-based leadership which was opposed to the transfer of constituent power to the soviets. Either a great contradiction, then, or a Machiavellian act of virtuous conversion of the political project – we have heard this kind of explanation a thousand times from those who have shown themselves to be the destroyers of the working class left over the course of the “short 20th century.”
This interpretation of the slogan is completely false. The political line dictated by Lenin is effectively summarized by the following arrangement: strategy to the class movement; tactics, and only tactics, to the institution, that is, the party, to political representation, the vanguard. The proletariat’s independence becomes the site of strategic hegemony when insurrectional strength and the revolutionary project take form. The vanguard must orient itself to this reality, at least if it wants to establish something as a tactical proposition. The radical transformation of revolutionary tactics, as advanced by Lenin beginning in April 1917, is thus not the gesture of an artist, but the political awareness of hegemonic maturity, of the strategic capacity of the proletarian masses – the peasants, workers, and soldiers organized in the soviets in order to take power. The Leninist gesture is a knowledge [savoir] of proletarian power, which comes to recognize itself as a strategic project. The party, the vanguard, with its technical expertise, must submit itself to this mass force and understand its strategy closely, before implementing it. Organizing the soviets in the revolution means giving organization to the constituent power that the latter express – that is, a continuity of action, a capacity to produce institutions, a hegemonic project in the construction of socialism. From “organ of insurrection” to “organ of insurrection and power of the proletariat”: this transformation of the functions of the soviets derives, by consequence, from the real, material development of revolutionary objectives.
Now, the second slogan: Socialism = soviets + electrification. Here again, the traditional interpretation betrays its meaning. It focuses on the fact that the soviets, their productive engagement, must be subordinated and correspondent to the urgent needs of socialist accumulation. This is only partially true. It’s true if we think about the immense tasks of the revolution – in a country characterized by semi-feudal social and economic structures, an industrial structure in no way sufficient for any project of modernization, and already prone to concentric attacks from counterrevolutionary forces. Such was the effective context in which the project to institute socialism took shape. But the slogan “Soviets + electrification” does not only mean that the fixed, energetic component of organic composition of capital must be raised, since it is the necessary basis for industrial expansion. The Leninist slogan cannot be reduced to this imperative. It rather carries a fundamental Marxian theme: the social revolution cannot take place without an adequate material infrastructure able to support it. This means that every political proposal that aims to subvert the capitalist system, its political configuration and existing mode of life, is falsely revolutionary if it is not at the same time the bearer of an adequate project to transform the mode of production. The direct conjunction of soviets – that is, the political organization of the proletariat – and electrification – that is, the adequate form of the mode of production – is actually revolutionary. Adequate form: necessary condition of the mode of production.
Wresting this proposal from contingency, taking it up in general (as Lenin wished) to work towards revolution, to “complete the revolution,” involves successfully carrying out the relationship between what the working class is in-itself (its technical composition) and the political forms in which this composition is organized. It is thus a question of traversing the determinate “social formation” of the proletariat – its technical capacities, modes of life, desire for bread, peace, and freedom (once again: here lies the meaning of the proletariat’s “technical composition”) in light of the class struggle, and tracking the transformation of the mode of production in light of the duality of power. This duality is the counterpower of the soviet – as well as, on the other hand, the sense that must be given to the “political composition” of the proletariat. Socialism and communism are modes of life constructed on the basis of modes of production. For Lenin, this link is internal to the construction of socialism. “Soviets + electrification” thus does not only mean that the soviets should take charge of the technological structure (which here is precisely tied to the industrial phase, defined by the usage of electrical energy) – a technological structure determined by capital according to its productive organization. In effect, every technological structure implies a social structure and vice versa.
For Lenin, this means that the composition of the soviets and the industrial machine is a matter of intervening within the technical structure of production. Machines cannot be used in a neutral fashion: there is no type of industrial production that functions the same under socialism as it does under capitalism. To affirm itself, socialism must target the capitalist industrial infrastructure by determining, via the modification of the proletarian use of machines, the transformation of the proletariat’s mode of life. Akin to Marx, Lenin’s slogan builds a revolutionary apparatus of social transformation in and through the capitalist relation – that is, the relation between variable capital and fixed capital, between technical structures of production and proletarian labor power. In this sense, the soviets are a structure of collective entrepreneurship; they become a figure of the enterprise of the common.
We find ourselves already within the third slogan I stated: “to cause the state wither away.” The strategic hegemony of the soviets, which seize political power and construct new modes of production, new modes of use for new machines (this applies both to machines that produce commodities and machines that produce subjectivity) – this strategy prepares the abolition of the state, or the passage from socialism to communism. When Lenin elaborates the communist theory of the extinction of the state, on the basis of Marx’s defense of the experience of the Paris Communards in 1871, he is unable to overcome its utopian character. Furthermore, the Leninist description of the experience of the Paris Commune, identical to Marx’s own, was already replete with critical references to and denunciations of the Communards’ errors. This is why Lenin goes beyond this utopia and why, in State and Revolution, the capacity it possesses to direct what is happening, even when the seizure of power is in motion, far exceeds canonical gestures. The radicality of revolution on the social terrain (abolition of private property, the principle of planning, the articulation of new forms of life in freedom…): here are the dynamic elements through which first, the withering away, and subsequent extinction, of the capitalist state must be realized.
With the revolution, the theoretical anticipation finds not only its confirmation but a practical terrain for realizing the task set out. In this project, one encounters and sees taken up, simultaneously, the assertion that the strategy of liberation belonged to the working class, productive invention represented a crucial point, and above all that the task of the abolition of the state presupposes an enormous development of the consciousness – and bodies – of the workers. It constitutes a majoritarian enterprise, and asserts itself through the irreducible expansion of proletarian force. We need to be clear on this point: Lenin knew how to gather the will of the Russian proletariat in this unbelievable effort; in the span of twenty years, the poetic “Konarmia (horse army)” led by [Semyon] Boudyonny morphed into those armored divisions which liberated Europe from Nazi-fascism. For my generation, this victory was a great introduction to the practice of emancipation. It was Lenin who, alongside the idea of the destruction of the state, disseminated those slogans of equality and fraternity that for a century had turned the global political order – to quote Marx, the “Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies” – upside down.
By orienting the desire for emancipation against the state, by viewing the latter as a machine which transforms social exploitation in private right and public law to control life and set class domination in place, Lenin left us a legacy with a massive problem. The problem is the following: how to build a common enterprise that can give workers command over produce and the power to exercise it, to build freedom for all? I cite: “So long as the state exists there is no freedom. When there is freedom, there will be no state” – that is Lenin from State and Revolution.5
But it should still be added: the force of the program involves and transforms workers’ needs, their consciousness, and their bodies, and translates them into a project. I quote:
The economic basis for the complete withering away of the state is such a high state of development of communism at which the antithesis between mental and physical labor disappears, at which there consequently disappears one of the principal sources of modern social inequality – a source, moreover, which cannot on any account be removed immediately by the mere conversion of the means of production into public property, by the mere expropriation of the capitalists.6
And Lenin continues:
This expropriation will make it possible for the productive forces to develop to a tremendous extent. And when we see how incredibly capitalism is already retarding this development, when we see how much progress could be achieved on the basis of the level of technique already attained, we are entitled to say with the fullest confidence that the expropriation of the capitalists will inevitably result in an enormous development of the productive forces of human society. But how rapidly this development will proceed, how soon it will reach the point of breaking away from the division of labor, of doing away with the antithesis between mental and physical labor, of transforming labor into “life’s prime want” – we do not and cannot know.7
The first fundamental condition for the withering away of the state is thus the elimination of the distinction between physical labor and intellectual labor. The second condition is massive development of the productive forces. The third material condition, which is contained in the first as much as the second, is the anticipation of a qualitative change of the development implied by the transformation of the productive forces themselves, that is, a change of workers’ consciousness and bodies. For Lenin, only on this basis can the problem of the withering away of the state become a realizable project.
Here again, we must break with that false reading that sees Leninism as exalting the state in relation to social development and the organization of the distribution of wealth. Lenin’s viewpoint is that of counterpower, of the capacity to construct the order of life from below – here, force and intelligence need to be combined. This is the viewpoint that the proletarian subversion of the state, from Machiavelli to Spinoza and Marx, has always put forward.
Lenin: from theory to practice. What might “All Power to the Soviets” mean in the present moment? I sense that it means: to build a movement, to unite forces where we find them, to form coalitions, elaborate material goals to organize all those who work and are exploited, to constitute power, to articulate a hegemonic strategy.
What might soviets + electrification mean today? This refers to undertaking inquiries (in the political and militant sense of the term inquiry, not only the sociological sense), immersing ourselves in the world of those who work and those who do not work, the world of the precarious, the world of material and immaterial labor, the world of socialized production, beyond contractual forms of labor, and building models of cooperation and enterprise different from those imposed by capitalism. This means reappropriating from the common what capital already exploits by extracting it from our lives, which are already associated in productive social labor [Cela signifie s’approprier de ce commun que le capital exploite déjà en l’extrayant de nos vies, quand celles-ci sont associées les unes aux autres dans la socialisation du travail productif].
And what might the slogan of the withering away of the state mean? To do all of this outside the structures of capitalist democracy, by building a social organization and autonomous movements, a political power of independent liberation.
– Translated by Patrick King
This text was originally given as a talk at the Penser l’émancipation conference at the University of Paris VIII in Saint-Denis, September 15, 2017. It subsequently appeared in Revue Période and Euronomade.
This article is part of a dossier entitled “Comrades, Rally Around Your Soviets!”: The Centenary of the October Revolution.
Lenin, “Letters From Afar, First Letter: The First Stage of the Revolution,” Collected Works, Vol. 23: August 1916-March 1917 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964), 299. ↩
Ibid., 304. ↩
Ibid., 473-74. ↩