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 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 and the International Socialist Review, and is the editor of annotated edition of Lenin’s State and Revolution (Haymarket Books, forthcoming).