Lenin’s Slogans

Mikhail Bal­jas­nij, “Com­mu­nism means sovi­ets, plus the elec­tri­fi­ca­tion of the whole coun­try. Let us trans­form the USSR through social­ist indus­tri­al­iza­tion” (1930).

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.

  1. V.I. Lenin, “Our For­eign and Domes­tic Posi­tion and Par­ty Tasks,” Col­lect­ed Works, Vol. 31: April-Decem­ber 1920 (Moscow: Progress Pub­lish­ers, 1966), 419. 

  2. See Lenin, “All Pow­er to the Sovi­ets!”, Col­lect­ed Works, Vol. 25: June-Sep­tem­ber 1917 (Moscow: Progress Pub­lish­ers, 1964), 155-56. 

  3. 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. 

  4. Ibid., 304. 

  5. Lenin, State and Rev­o­lu­tion, in Col­lect­ed Works, Vol­ume 25, 473. 

  6. Ibid. 

  7. Ibid., 473-74. 

Author of the article

is a Marxist political philosopher, widely known for his book Empire, co-authored with Michael Hardt, and for his work on Spinoza. In 1969 he was among the founders of Potere Operaio, which he left in 1973 to become one of the main leaders of Autonomia Operaia. After moving to Paris, he taught at the University of Paris VIII (Vincennes-Saint Denis) and the Collège International de philosophie, alongside philosophers such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze. His most well-known politico-philosophical writings, often co-authored with Michael Hardt, come from his time in France: The Labor of Dionysus, Empire, Multitude, and Commonwealth. The first part of his autobiography, released in 2015 by Ponte alle grazie (Milan), is entitled Storia di un comunista.