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

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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 an editor of Viewpoint and a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.