Review of Lenin’s State and Revolution (1917)

Lenin’s State and Revolution, composed during the summer months of 1917 (between two revolutions), is praxis embodied in text. While its content is ostensibly theoretical, the corrosive criticism it contains simultaneously served practical ends. The work may therefore be viewed in two fairly distinct formal lights: first, qua Marxist political treatise; second, qua polemic. But, in true dialectical fashion, Lenin’s two central motifs constitute an inseparable unity. They interweave with one another, sundering apart at one moment only to again coalesce in the next. Lenin distinguishes himself from many other dialecticians in this work, however. For while he remains faithful to the oscillating (even hypnotic) method of presentation that typifies dialectical reasoning, his style nevertheless retains its lucidity. His examination is thoroughgoing, yet the conclusions it yields are unambiguous. It is at once a testament to the author’s political genius as it is to the demands of the times in which it was written, bearing the stamp of irreducible brilliance (contingency) alongside the incumbent historical conditions (necessity).

Before proceeding, however, a couple paragraphs might be devoted to the stylistic features of this work. From the outset it must be noted that Lenin’s writing style cannot be properly characterized as popular — this would be a distortion. The logic of his rhetoric was pathically directed to appeal a specific audience (Lenin’s revolutionary ethic was not much in question). What sort of audience did the author have in mind? A cursory investigation of State and Revolution reveals plainly its intended readership. Though it was published as a pamphlet (a relatively popular medium), Lenin obviously meant for this text to appeal to a more literate and politically-active audience. The author’s ideas are organized into terse paragraphs, often no more than a sentence or two long. Some of Lenin’s pithy rejoinders against his “Marxist” adversaries almost seem reminiscent of political slogans, witty and memorable.

Moving from the aforementioned generality (about the text’s audience) to the particular, one moreover gets the sense that Lenin meant to sway some of the more radical Mensheviks over to the Bolshevik camp (these two tendencies constituting the divergent strains of Marxism in Russia at that time). As such, the document includes numerous invocations of and lengthy citations from the works of Marx and Engels. This alone presents a hindrance to the uneducated (or even politically “moderate”) reader. It implies that Lenin presumed that his audience would be sympathetic to the political and economic philosophy of Marxism, and be at least partially aware of its central texts (both those of its founders and its later exponents). Without this inclination or familiarity with the subject, one gets quickly bogged down by the tedium of Marxist exegesis. The language Lenin employs is not extraordinarily abstruse, but it does take for granted that its reader is conversant with the pertinent issues which it addresses and references it makes. The few explanatory digressions which Lenin briefly makes before introducing a passage by Marx or Engels strikes one as mere reminders meant to “jog the memory” of its reader. It is difficult to imagine the average Russian proletarian or peasant reading State and Revolution — a Bolshevik agitator or a disillusioned Menshevik, however, is an altogether different story.

Returning to the thesis announced in the opening paragraph of this essay, we may springboard from our discussion of Lenin’s rhetoric into the dual aspect of the text’s form, which naturally shapes its content. The positive dimension of State and Revolution exists in its political program for the implementation of a revolutionary Marxist state. Lenin’s speculative theorizing unfolds out of relevant quotations from works by Marx and Engels on the subject. But the articulation of Lenin’s political position is at the same time a critique of his opponents’ platforms; thus it also serves a negative function. Important to note is the temporal difference immanent to this bipolarity (of positivity and negativity). The positive component of Lenin’s dialectic, his explicit program for revolution and the institution of the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” is meant to express an eternal truth of history (as paradoxical as this may seem). By contrast, the negative (critical) component is designed to accomplish only the most exigent matters-at-hand, concerning contemporary political developments within the Provisional Government, the workers’ soviets, the war with Germany, etc., etc.

For the reader to grasp this truth (especially its positive aspect), he must understand Lenin’s approach to the works of Marx and Engels, especially in the context of competing interpretations from which it emerged. The combined œuvre of Marx and Engels were viewed by their followers as canonical and by some as even practically infallible (Lenin was among these). If one takes note of Lenin’s reverential tone when interpreting their writings – the quasi-Biblical way that he quotes them (book, chapter, and verse) – one can see this clearly. And while he would be quick to deny the religious (doctrinaire, to say the least) quality of their invocations, it is obvious that Lenin takes the political and economic philosophies of Marx and Engels to have been blessed by a special (one might say “transcendent”) insight into the mechanics of history. Therefore, the positive program outlined by Lenin, which rises out of citations from Marx and Engels, is intended to scientifically (in Hegel’s sense) chart the political itinerary that leads to the end of history — the communist utopia of pure freedom. Since it is meant to achieve this absolute end, one might rightly discern the temporality of the positive aspect to presume the standpoint of eternity. The theoretical correctness of the centralized democratic republic, with a core body that combined the executive and legislative functions of the state, was insisted upon by Lenin.

On the other hand, the negative antipode in State and Revolution is meant to criticize historical objects which have only a fleeting significance. The explicitly critical sections are written in the journalistic style of opinion/editorial pieces. Kautsky and Kerensky are only footnotes in the epic of freedom, the last apostates of socialism to be vanquished before the light of Marxian truth is allowed to shine down through history. Lenin understood the immediate political environment of his day as something that must be necessarily overcome (annihilated, to emphasize the negativity of his view), but which would only have trivial importance compared against the greater history of communism.

While this synthetic treatment reveals the abstract truth of the whole, some more attention must again be paid to the concrete truth of the particular. The primary point of disagreement which the reader will notice is Lenin’s insistence upon the political dimension of Marxism. For Lenin, the political is not wholly reducible to economics, or cannot, at least, be deduced from the analytic of the capitalist economy. The base-superstructure analogy employed by Marx in some of his early works had been blown out of proportion by some of his vulgar interpreters. These interpreters, who prided themselves on their exhaustive analyses of market economies and capital exchange, were dubbed by Lenin and their other detractors as followers of “Economism.” Bernstein, the leader of this trend within European Marxism, strayed so far from the holistic criticisms of capitalism (epitomized in the writings of Marx and Engels) that he came to consider himself a revisionist.

Likewise, Kautsky and his sect of Social-Democrats (the Mensheviks) were also seduced by the faith in the economic inevitability of societal transformation, resigning themselves to relative inaction (though they would have perhaps preferred to view it as temporary cooperation, since in their opinion Russia was not ready for a proletarian revolution). They resorted to popular platitudes concerning the “revolutionary spontaneity of the masses,” believing that social change would come about of its own accord. The Menshevik resolution to work within the framework of bourgeois democracy was viewed by Lenin to be conciliatory. In his view, the only course of action which was faithful to the vision of Marxism was that of radical revolution. Cooperation with the forces of liberal democracy was anathema. The leftover appendages of the bourgeois state could not be used to further the ends of the proletariat; they were instead to be “smashed,” and to have new political institutions built upon their ashes. A violent overthrow, orchestrated by a vanguard party of professional revolutionaries, would be required to carry out this plan. The state as it had hitherto existed (as an instrument of social oppression) would be immediately abolished, and over time the necessity of the state as the coordinator and enforcer of legal statutes would gradually “wither away.”

Many historians and rival interpreters of Marx have claimed that Lenin distorted Marx’s writings to achieve his own goals. Pointing this out has become one of the great clichés of historiography. As part of this standard line, the fidelity of Lenin’s political philosophy to Marx’s theory has thus been called into question. But on the issue of the role of the state in the prospective “dictatorship of the proletariat,” Lenin presents a thoroughly convincing argument, supported by numerous quotations from the founders of Marxism. He piles citation upon citation in defense of his platform, buttressing his theoretical moorings at every turn. And while the directives he arrives at are inflexible, categorical, and totalitarian, Lenin’s attention to the multi-faceted nature of Marxism restores much of the dynamism that had been lost in the Kautskyite readings of the progenitors’ texts. One can hardly doubt that Marx and Engels would have objected to the vulgar economic reductionism of the Mensheviks.

If Lenin is to be criticized on any point, the most valid method would be to attack the weakness of his judgment in appraising Russia’s readiness for a proletarian revolution (the kind of which Marx was calling for). The accusation that Russia was as yet economically “unripe” for such a transition is commonplace, but for good reason. His championing of the revolutionary potential of the peasantry is a symptom of this problem. Even staunch critics of Lenin’s theory of the state like Rosa Luxembourg praised his resolve and his commitment to an accurate interpretation of Marxist doctrine.* The rigidity of Lenin’s theorizing will doubtless prove distasteful to many, as will his suspicion of popularly-elected assemblies, but his ideas found ample justification in the writings of Marx and Engels.

And not without cause, either. The “masses” (in Marxist jargon) or the “rabble” (in Hegelian jargon) are known for their fickleness and ineffectuality. Taking note of this fact leads to hasty accusations of elitism, but the accuracy of Lenin’s judgment on this matter can scarcely be questioned. State and Revolution stands not only as an historical document of scholarly interest, as mandatory reading in an anthology of past theories of state. Rather, it demonstrates an acutely practical awareness. It is the fruit of a prodigious political mind for whom words were ballistics — one which recognized the revolutionary explosiveness of a well-timed theoretical pamphlet and a well-crafted political slogan.

* “There is no doubt either that the wise heads at the helm of the Russian Revolution, that Lenin and Trotsky on their thorny path beset by traps of all kinds, have taken many a decisive step only with the greatest inner hesitation and with the most violent inner opposition.” Rosa Luxembourg. “The Fundamental Significance of the Russian Revolution.”

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