How Does Theory Guide Practice? A Response to Salar Mohandesi on State and Revolution

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This is an installment in a series of articles debating Salar Mohandesi’s “The Actuality of Revolution: Reflections on Lenin’s State and Revolution.” Also see the responses by Malcolm Harris and Pham Binh, as well as Mohandesi’s final response.

Petrograd Military Committee of the Bolsheviks, July 1917.

This exchange grew out of a panel that Salar and I took part in at the Left Forum in New York in March 2012 called “State and Revolution: Is Lenin Still Relevant?1 Salar happened to speak first at the panel and put forward such a thought-provoking analysis of the relationship between theory and practice, using Lenin’s writing of State and Revolution as an example, that I largely set aside my prepared remarks and decided to address some of the points he raised. What follows is a version of those responses.2 I will present brief summaries of Salar’s case and then offer some critical responses in numbered paragraphs.

Part One of Salar’s Case: In early July 1917, workers, soldiers, and sailors in Petrograd organized an uprising aimed at overthrowing the Provisional Government. Lenin was caught by surprise for several reasons: he underestimated the revolutionary potential of the moment, he was too concerned with maintaining unity inside the Bolshevik leadership, and he believed that a peaceful transfer of power to the soviets, even with a Menshevik/Socialist Revolutionary majority, was possible. Meanwhile, the tens of thousands of new working class recruits who flooded into the Bolshevik Party understood the need for a violent revolution against the Provisional Government. Therefore, they acted autonomously from Lenin and the rest of the Bolshevik leadership. Lenin’s failure to act as a “binding element” doomed the semi-spontaneous uprising to failure. Only after the suppression of the July Days did Lenin realize that he was trailing behind working class consciousness. He thus launched a campaign within the Party leadership to overthrow the Provisional Government by force.

1. I agree entirely with Salar’s emphasis on the ability of large sections of the working class to draw revolutionary conclusions based on their own experience in struggle. The heart of Marxism is the idea that socialism is the self-emancipation of the working class. That is, workers must make their own revolution, not receive it from on high from a self-appointed revolutionary minority (this was Marx’s disagreement with Auguste Blanqui).

2. Salar also demonstrates that a genuinely revolutionary party must be composed of tens or hundreds of thousands of workers (as well as a minority of students and other supporters). But in order for a party like this to be effective, it must also have a leadership who can act as a “binding element” (to use Salar’s phrase). Or, as Trotsky put it, “It is not enough to possess the sword, one must give it an edge; it is not enough to give the sword an edge, one must know how to wield it” (Material for a Report on French Communism, March 2, 1922). Salar contends that Lenin did not know how to wield the sword in early July.

3. Here is where I think Salar is wrong on several historical points. First, he underestimates the cohesion of the Bolshevik Party. This is not to say that the Bolsheviks resembled the top-down, bureaucratic apparatus powered by a cult of personality around “the leader” that Stalin would later champion. Yes, there were fights, confusion, miscommunications, and many examples of new members of the Party marching off to do their own thing. But by simply counterposing the Central Committee (essentially just Lenin) to the “base… acting autonomously,” Salar distorts the Party’s structure and capacity for action. As Alexander Rabinowitch demonstrates exhaustively, the Party cannot be reduced simply “leaders” and “masses.” Rather, hundreds, and thousands, of local leaders, workplace militants, soldier and sailor activists, intellectuals and a network of newspapers and shop and trench papers bound the central committee organically to the influx of new members. This cohesion (and a vibrant internal party democracy) explains the mechanism by which Lenin succeeded in convincing the Party to adopt the bulk of his April Theses, centrally the call for “All Power to the Soviets.” Likewise, the Bolshevik capacity for pushing forward and pulling back stemmed from their cohesion. For instance, the Party pushed in mid-June for a militant protest against a new offensive planned on the German front, but pulled back when it became clear the Provisional Government would treat the protest as an excuse for repression.

4. Second, I do not see July as an instance of Lenin’s failure as a leader (or indeed the Bolshevik leadership as a whole), but as, perhaps, the moment when he/they performed the greatest service for the revolution. As Salar describes, sections of the Bolshevik base alongside other radical workers launched the July Days. But this was not simply the “base… acting autonomously,” as Salar claims. Rather, elements of the Bolshevik leadership supported the uprising, many local Bolshevik leaders organized it, and, because revolutions are messy, it was not really clear what the point of it was at first. An armed protest? A continuation of the June demonstrations? The beginning of a national uprising? In the midst of this confusion, the Bolshevik leadership worked furiously to gather reports, to assess the Party’s strength, reconnoiter the mood of the troops that did not join the protests (they attempted to count up the guns on each side), analyze the situation at the front, in Moscow and other key cities, etc. After several days of intense debate (and the waning of the protests), Lenin and the Bolshevik leadership decided that the revolution, while it might have been able to depose Kerensky from Petrograd, was not sufficiently organized at a national level and therefore, the entire key to the situation was a tactical retreat in Petrograd. They acted to avoid a repeat of Paris 1871, when the workers in the capital city were isolated and quickly exterminated by superior military force. This was precisely the kind of retreat that the German Communists (Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht among them) failed to make in January of 1919 and they paid for it with their own heads.

5. Third, this retreat did lead to some demoralization and repression as Salar documents; however, as Rabinowitch shows, the Party weathered the storm remarkably well and was back on the offensive within weeks. Now with the advantage that tens of thousands of workers knew, not by Bolshevik propaganda alone, but by their own experience, that the Mensheviks and SR leaderships would refuse to overthrow the Provisional Government under any circumstances, that Kerensky’s ascension to Prime Minister marked the beginning of a split within those parties and the war and economic crisis would continue to drive workers to the left, towards the Bolsheviks. Having avoided the premature, local uprising, Lenin now turned to the practical question of how and when to overthrow the Provisional Government.

Part Two of Salar’s Case: Salar rightly identifies Lenin’s State and Revolution as the theoretical framework for the overthrow of the bourgeois state while stressing the defeat of the Kornilov coup as the practical experience that made its realization possible. Yet, he contends that in order to advocate for the overthrow of the Provisional Government and fulfill the demand of “All Power to the Soviets,” Lenin had to “distort” Marx and Engels’ views of the state. Salar condones this because Lenin aimed to address the particular context of the Russian Revolution. In essence, Salar argues, Lenin created a whole new theory of the state that was inspired by Marx and Engels, but should not be seen as a faithful reproduction of their views. Lenin’s theory of the state and revolution did not precede July, it came after. Salar stresses that for Lenin theory is not a set of logical deductions that dictate practice, rather theory is a summing up of practice, an after the fact generalization that can only guide practice within strictly limited historical circumstances, in this case, from August to October. Thus, we should read Lenin to understand his method, but we cannot use State and Revolution as a guide to our understanding of the contemporary capitalist state because too much has changed.

6. I think Salar is absolutely right to situate State and Revolution in the context, and see it as a product, of the Russian Revolution. The whole book vibrates with urgency and inspiration and is clearly designed as a polemic aimed at provoking action. On the other hand, Salar wants to so thoroughly restrict the role of theory as a guide to practice, make it so contingent on specific historical circumstances, that he is the one who ends up forced to “distort” Lenin’s ideas and the actual history of how the book came to be written. Salar notes that Lenin started gathering material for State and Revolution in the winter of 1916 as part of a bitter dispute with his close collaborator Nikolai Bukharin (who was, as a matter of fact, advocating the ideas that Lenin would soon adopt). Lenin completed most of the research before the February Revolution. It was on the basis of his reading of Marx and Engels and his new understanding of their emphasis on the need to smash the bourgeois state and replace it with a workers state that he developed his attitude towards the Provisional Government as we can see, for instance, in his Letters From Afar or his April Theses. Before he started the research for his argument with Bukharin, Lenin had not made this leap. In the first few years of World War I, Lenin even advocated the Bolsheviks joining a multi-class government provided all the parties were agreed on, to use his paraphrase, turning the imperialist war into a civil war against Czarism. Only after the (re)formation of the Soviets in February 1917 and his reading of Marx and Engels in December 1916 does Lenin explicitly advocate the formation of a workers government. The point is that, as Salar rightly notes, Lenin, like Marx, based his theoretical views on a careful study of real conditions and developments in workers struggles. However, Lenin also looked to Marxist theory as a guide to foresee developments that did not yet fully manifest in reality.

7. Here, Salar’s emphasis on theory as an after-the-fact summary distorts the development of Lenin’s ideas and practice. I would contend that, precisely because Lenin read Marx and Engels on the need to smash the state before the revolution started, he entered the process looking for ways in which this might be possible and the Soviets presented themselves as the leading candidate. In this way, Lenin’s theoretical views were in advance of material reality (in the sense of what was knowable from the specific conjuncture), and, under the right conditions, those ideas were able to help shape that reality, not merely reflect it. Thus, I would argue that Salar too narrowly constricts the utility of theory in social practice. It is true that he allows for this method to operate between August and October when Lenin uses State and Revolution to prod the Party into overthrowing the Provisional Government, but Salar has to sever almost all theoretical continuity between Paris 1871 (see Marx on The Civil War in France) and October 1917. Even more problematical, he comes dangerously close to arguing that the only lessons we can learn from State and Revolution today are on the level of Lenin’s method of thinking, or his “understanding of the relationship between theory and practice.”

8. If the only thing theory can do is, as Salar states, articulate “the political project already implicit” in workers struggles today, what does that mean about the bourgeois state? Do we really have to deduce from the current level of struggle our theoretical view of the bourgeois state? Of course, today the American state is gargantuan, terrifying. It is “special bodies of armed men” run amuck. Racism drips from every pore and it is an unparalleled war machine. But it is also social services and libraries and public education and health. So we must certainly study the state today and begin with a recognition that we, the social movements, the working class, remain very weak compared to its power. This is where theory, Lenin’s theory of the state – which he constructed on Marx and Engels’ views, and they all built on the basis of the high points of workers revolutionary struggle – can act as a guide, a starting point, for us to see farther than the front row of riot police and their tear gas today. Lenin didn’t just develop a method, he also laid out a theoretical framework which describes the origins of the state, its purpose and what must be done to overcome it. Salar’s charge that Lenin “distorted” Marx and Engels means he doesn’t comment on whether or not Lenin’s key insights remain valid: Can the state be taken over ready made for revolutionary purposes? If not, can it be smashed? What will replace it? Lenin (following Marx and Engels) has very definite opinions about these questions. Salar is free to argue that Lenin did, in fact, distort Marx and Engels, but, in this piece at any rate, does offers no evidence to back up his claim that Lenin did anything of the kind. He simply asserts it. I would submit that Lenin did just the opposite and, in fact, did rescue Marx and Engels’ genuine thinking on this subject.3

9. In sum, while taking issue with some of Salar’s formulations, I think we have a common understanding of the need to use history and theoretical work as a guide to practice, even if we differ slightly over how. We agree on that socialism must be the self-emancipation of the working class and that mass revolutionary parties must be built if workers are to achieve that aim. That is a very good place from which to continue this discussion. We live in a country where the history of our own workers and social movements – from the 1930s sit-downs to the rise of DRUM in the late 1960s to the 2006 mass immigrants’ marches – is suppressed, to say nothing of our knowledge of international struggles and revolutions. Certainly the Russian Revolution is not the only event from which we can extract critical lessons, but it remains one of the highpoints, if not the highpoint, of working class struggle. If this exchange helps spark a sustained discussion of its strengths and weaknesses, then we will have done our jobs.


Todd Chretien is a contributor to SocialistWorker.org and the International Socialist Review and is the editor of annotated edition of Lenin’s State and Revolution (Haymarket Books, Fall 2012). He is currently a graduate student in history at the University of California Santa Cruz.


1. I would also like to thank Prof. Samuel Farber and Prof. Radhika Desai for taking part.

2. I will assume a basic knowledge of the Russian Revolution. For an excellent review of these events in condensed form, see Ahmed Shawki, “80 Years Since the Russian Revolution.”

3. For more of the history behind Lenin’s State and Revolution, I have edited and annotated an edition of Lenin’s book along with a new introduction that will be published by Haymarket Books in the fall of 2012.

Author of the article

Todd Chretien is a contributor to SocialistWorker.org and the International Socialist Review, and is the editor of annotated edition of Lenin’s State and Revolution (Haymarket Books, forthcoming).