Socialist Reading Series I: The State and Revolution [Part 1]

Why Lenin? Why now?

Lenin in 1919

This is the first entry into what I hope will be a reading series in classic socialist/communist/Marxist texts. I don’t get to read many such texts as part of my graduate school education, and, in general, there seems to be little interest in analytic philosophy departments in discussing them. This isn’t to say that there’s a hostility towards such texts. There isn’t, and in my experience most people’s attitudes towards Marx and socialist theory remain generally warm. But only in a second-hand kind of way–the way that you might have a general positive attitude towards someone that your good friend has vouched for, but whom you don’t know otherwise. I’ve met very few (any?) people in analytic philosophy under the age of 50 who have either read any of Marx’s primary texts as part of their education, or who see Marxism as a serious object of study (dare I say he gets the same treatment in analytic programs as Nietzsche?). So, my impression is that Marx is rarely read, tolerated, but generally considered passe by folks around my age. (This is not the case in other departments within the liberal arts and I’m certain it’s not the case in continental programs but I’m speaking from an analytic department view. I imagine, of course, that there are individual differences between different analytic philosophy departments and perhaps differences in sub-fields. I’d love to learn more about where it is taken more or less seriously.)

Given that Marx isn’t taken terribly seriously, it’s not at all surprising that other socialist writers are not talked about at all. To have an interest in reading Marx might be a tolerable quirk, but to have an interest in reading Lenin (or God forbid!) Mao, you’ve got to have some kind of radical ideological bend! As far as I’m aware nobody reads them in my neck of the woods. Yet, it is these writers, their actions, and their thinking that took Marx’s ideas and used them to shape much of the twentieth century. I can’t count the number of conversations I’ve had with other graduate students about how ineffectual and impotent doing philosophy can seem, and yet, here are writers and thinkers (dare I say philosophers? No…philosophy is done in journals and universities…) who took philosophy and used it to shape the majority of the twentieth century, but whose work we don’t even glance at! I’ve read Kripke’s Naming and Necessity four different times in my philosophical education but had to read Capital Vol. 1 alone during a Christmas break, and have never even touched Mao!

So, in light of all this, I’m trying to do a little self-education through writing. I won’t pretend that I don’t have any kind of ideological bend–I do. I’m highly sympathetic to Marxism, highly skeptical of Anarchism, and critical of anything to the right of that. I’m not going into this study as some kind of neutral objective observer (as if such things exists), so nobody should expect otherwise. I’ll be going into this study as a charitable and sympathetic reader. Nevertheless, I won’t be taking a dogmatic approach to the subject either. Given the fact that I’m a product of my education system, my knowledge of all this stuff is pretty amateurish–I’ve read some classics of socialism, but far from enough to be an expert or to have fixed and decided opinions on some of the more subtle issues. In short, I simply don’t know enough to be dogmatic! So, while I’ll be taking it as a given that, for example, most of what Marx says was fundamentally correct, I won’t be treating Capital as scripture. I’ll also limit my study to the particular piece of literature at hand–i.e. for this bit, I’ll only be reading The State and Revolution and not going to other sources or pulling from other texts. This is less a matter of methodology than of laziness; I just don’t have the time to do the kind of work that would be fitting for something more serious (hence this reading series’s banishment to the crumb dungeon).

Finally, a little note on why I’ve chosen this particular piece of Lenin’s. First, the piece is relatively short and straightforward, and from what I’ve read regarding Lenin’s works, it’s perhaps the one piece that isn’t explicitly directed at some particular factional dispute that he was involved in in like 1875. In other words, it’s one of the works that has had some staying power and that doesn’t require that we understand the inner workings of the struggle for power between emigre nerds in Switzerland in the last century (although, take that with a grain of salt, cause there’s still a bunch of that in here as well!). Second, it’s directed at answering a question that I’m particularly squeamish about (from a perspective that I don’t endorse): the importance of violence in facilitating social change. Frankly, I’m not a fan of the claim that such violence is always necessary and I think one of the things that bothers me is how quickly and easily endorsing that idea can get out of hand. And not only for moral reasons (which rightly might be dismissed as bourgeois anyway), but for practical ones as well. The violence is rarely used against the people whom it is initially justified and bald-faced terror does little to win converts [Aside: One of the things that really pisses me off about the current climate on the left currently is the fetishization of the guillotine as a symbol of popular violence as though the people whose heads were cut off were all aristocrats. The vast majority of them were regular, inconsequential people!] So, this piece is also chosen because of intellectual curiosity: could Lenin’s argument be right, and if not, given that I’m sympathetic to the general socialist project, on what grounds can I criticize it?

With all that behind us, let’s turn to the chapter one. For each section I’ll offer a brief summary followed by an analysis.

[Note: the edition I’m using is 1965 reprinting from the Selected Works of V. I. Lenin, Engl. ed., Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1952, Vol. II, Part I. Fun note: the actual copy is a badass little first edition printing from the People’s Republic of China]

Chapter I: Class Society and The State

  1. The State as the Product of the Irreconcilability of Class Antagonisms


Lenin’s goal is established in this first chapter: he wants to set the record straight about the proper interpretation of Marx with regards to the question of…well, the state and revolution. According to Lenin, Marx and Engels have been misinterpreted by different bourgeois philosophers and economists (and Lenin’s political enemies) who have attempted to strip their writings of their true revolutionary and radical commitments. Rather than embracing the true radicalism of Marxism as Lenin has, these thinkers push their adherents to a moderate, incrementalist, complacent position. These are bad interpretations and Lenin is going to show that Marxism is inherently revolutionary from the ground up.

He begins with Engels and his version of the emergence of the state. According to Engels, the state arises at a particular time in history in which the contradictions of some initial communal society are unable to be resolved internally. These contradictions are, naturally, the product of the economic class interests of that society, and are, crucially, antagonistic and irreconcilable. They will continue to exist until some conflict either removes one of the contradictory terms or some other intervention takes place that reduces or contains the antagonism. The creation of the state is such an intervention. Rather than engaging in mutual destruction and a dissolution of society, the state is implemented as something above society and alienated from it whose purpose is to moderate the antagonistic class conflict and keep order.

What this shows, says Lenin, is that the state doesn’t resolve or reconcile the social contradictions inherent in that society (at best, it is brought in to keep the worst excesses from occurring). Rather, the state serves to contain or perpetuate class conflict, not resolve it.

Not only does the state not resolve class conflict, but, claims Lenin, by definition, Engels is committed to the claim that it can’t resolve that conflict since it arises precisely at that point in which conflict becomes irreconcilable. It is not a means of reconciliation, but marks the point at which reconciliation becomes impossible.

The implication is, of course, that at least by the time he wrote Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State in 1884, Engels was already opposed to moderate approaches that attempt to use the state as a tool of liberation.

Furthermore, Lenin claims, Marx also held the same position since he held that the state necessarily serves as a tool of class rule that legitimizes oppression through moderation. If this is the case, then the state simply cannot be used as a means of liberation since its very existence entails oppression.

The upshot of both these claims is twofold: first, any proposal and political movement that sees the state as a means reconciliation and liberation is not an accurate reading of Marx and Engels. And second (and more importantly) liberation is achieved only through the violent destruction of the state. I quote:

If the state is the product of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms, if it is a power standing above society and “increasingly alienating itself from it,” then it is obvious that the liberation of the oppressed class is impossible not only without a violent revolution, but also without the destruction of the apparatus of state power which was created by the ruling class and which is the embodiment of this “alienation.”

The State and Revolution Ch. 1 Part 1 pg. 9; italics in original


It’s clear that the major part of Lenin’s conclusion relies not on the fact that class conflict is irreconcilable, but that the state is supposed to be the tool for one class to oppress the other. Thus, it relies less on the claim about Engels and more on the one about Marx. If, for example, the state were some impartial referee that merely contained conflict without taking sides, then it would not follow that the only way out of the irreconcilable conflict would be through violent revolution and the destruction of the state. Just as in boxing the existence of a referee who contains the conflict within certain boundaries (no biting!) does not imply that the way to end the fight is to destroy the referee, so the existence of an entity separate and alienated from the class conflict which produces it does not imply that the way to end the conflict would be to destroy the state. You might just have to take out the opponent.

However, there is a sense in which my argument only works if we assume some kind of equal starting point, and, furthermore, some further assumption about the agreement regarding the conditions under which we’ll be constrained. Suppose that you and I are set to box, but you’ve spent the last 90 days malnourished while I’ve been hitting the gym every day with my trainer and eating well. The introduction of a ‘moderate’ judge who rewards points on abilities that require good health and training only serves to the benefit the person who already has the initial advantage. In that case, the only path towards your liberation might be to first remove the referee who imposes certain unfair rules against you! Likewise, even if we start from an equal starting point and with an impartial referee, only to quickly switch to an arrangement in which that referee is replaced with my mom (who, as you should know, always rules in my favor and is willing to do horrible things to protect me), then it makes sense to take her out.

So, what matters is why the state, separate and alienated from society, always serves as a tool of oppression in favor of the ruling class.

Unfortunately, Lenin doesn’t offer any citations for the claim that Marx thought the state must necessarily be a tool for the oppression of one class and maintenance of class conflict. This isn’t to say that Marx doesn’t say this, but only that this most vital argument is missing here and that I’ll have to look for it in the literature. I’ll eventually get to it. For now, we can flag this as a fundamental assumption in Lenin’s argument and assume it conditionally. In any case, he says more about this in the rest of the chapter so stay tuned.

Interestingly, one may have thought that who the initial state comes to favor is also an important one. However, it appears that at least from what I’ve gleaned here, this isn’t the case. It’s easy to see why this is the case if we grant Lenin that the state will always favor one side over the other and will necessarily serve to preserve the conflict between classes. If that’s so, then as long as the state exists, regardless of who wields it, it will maintain the irreconcilable conflict which produced it. We can imagine that this power has been traded many times before between the antagonist classes, sometimes in favor of one class sometimes in favor of the other. But because these classes have vested their powers in the state rather than taking measures to abolishing it, the antagonism and conflict has been and continues to be maintained. Thus, if true liberation really does rest in ending class conflict, then true liberation requires the abolition of the state. This also gives us a better sense of what is meant by true liberation: namely, true liberation involves the resolution of class conflict (which seems to be in line with what Marx thought as well).

If what’s been said is right, then it’s also apparent that the abolition of the state is necessary, but not sufficient for the resolution of the conflict! If we accept the story that Engels and Lenin have given us, then the destruction of the state would, presumably, only bring us back to the initial position of irreconcilable class conflict–but now with no holds barred. But this still isn’t reconciliation of the contradictions that made the state a necessity since these contradictions would still be in place. What would be required at this point is the further removal of one of the contradictory terms. And it’s not clear what this entails, but, I assume, it’s not something pretty if avoiding it required the creation of the state in the first place. This is another place to put a finger on.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that the claim that oppression is perpetuated through appeals to moderation is one that many of us would sympathize with today. One doesn’t have to be a Marxist or follow any of Lenin’s argument thus far to notice that an appeal to moderation is not always a way of ensuring anything like fairness and that it can very often be used as a means of oppressing. If you try to kill me and I fight back, to appeal to the ‘moderate’ solution that you should moderate your approach by trying to merely enslave me and I should moderate my response by trying to talk you out of it is clearly one that favors you and not me. And this, indeed, is what many socialists are attempting to point out to moderates: the situation we’re in right now is one in which the rules of moderation only serve to preserve the power of existing structures.

2. Special Bodies of Armed Men, Prisons, etc.


Returning to Engels, Lenin describes the effects of the state on the initial society which brings it to life. First, it divides people on the basis of territory, and second, it creates an independent armed organization through which it can exert its power and keep order. This organization is not only limited to armed individuals, but also includes separate institutions and material elements that are necessary for it to operate (e.g. prisons and such). This arrangement constitutes the state’s power over the society which birthed it.

Engels’ intention in making this point, claims Lenin, is a revolutionary one: it’s supposed to make the more revolution conscious workers realize that the very existence of a separate armed body in place to keep order is a contingent arrangement that’s in place precisely because the state needs it to serve its function as a regulatory body that suppresses and moderates class conflict.

The question that arises once this is realized is that of whether there can be an alternative to this arrangement involving a special armed body that operates apart from society and polices it. To this question “the West-European and Russian philistines” say ‘no’, citing the complexities of modern society, the division of labor, and so on. However, claims Lenin, this is not why the alternative is impossible–one could imagine a highly complex society that only differs “from the primitive organization of a stick-wielding herd of monkeys, or of primitive man, or of men united in clans, by its complexity, its high technique, and so forth.” (both quotes from pg. 11) Rather, what makes an alternative impossible is the fact that in modern societies (more generally, any society after the creation of a state) there already exists the deep and irreconcilable rift between classes.

Crucially, if there weren’t such a separate entity which alone were entitled to use force, but if each individual were armed and capable of doing so, then there would be immediate armed conflict.

The argument here goes pretty quickly but it’s a fairly interesting one. When we ask “why do we need the state? Why do we need the police?” The most common answer is, of course, that without this there would be chaos. This is precisely right and Lenin agrees–if the power of the state disappeared and population armed, you can guarantee that the landowners’ estates would be pillaged and the aristocracy butchered (as Lenin knew from the history of mass peasant revolts in Russia). However, what Lenin asks is why this should be the case. Why should a general arming of the population in the absence of state power result in violence? The answer is apparent: it’s because there are irreconcilable class conflicts simmering below the surface that are constrained only by the existence of the state.

Importantly, because the function of the state is to constrain class conflict, the more acute that conflict becomes, the more power the state will need in order to suppress it. Thus, as empires grow, encompassing more and more people who are ruled by a smaller and smaller minority, the needs of empire will proportionally demand a more and more powerful state–more guns, more ships, more surveillance, etc. with which to contain the conflict.

This is further exasperated by competing states which seek to conquer more and more territory. In other words, the power needed to constrain Germany and France and the class conflicts therein is much greater than the power that either state needs to constrain their respective class conflicts. Thus, conquest of other territories requires a proportionate increase in state power.

Here, Lenin sneaks in an extra argument and jab at his opponents: support for military intervention is defacto support for the continuing oppression and perpetuation of class conflict. Likewise, given that he’s writing this in 1918 before Russia has pulled out of WWI, support for continuing the war, even in defense of ‘the fatherland’, amounts to strengthening the state against the interests of the working class.


Engels/Lenin’s understanding of the state as an organization vested with power made manifest in armed men and the institutions that support them seems fundamentally correct. However, one could push on two places. The first has to do with whether the role of the state is indeed to suppress or contain class conflict. In other words, one might grant that perhaps one of the functions of the state is to keep such control in check, but that this is not the fundamental reason for the existence of the state; here, Lenin’s philistine enemies who stress the growing complexity of society might have something to say.

In response, one might make a kind of argument in Lenin’s defense similar to the one Nietzsche makes in On the Genealogy of Morals. Namely, one could argue that people who appeal to the current utility of a practice or institution to infer the original purpose for which that practice or institution arose are making a mistake. Thus, one could argue that although the state now serves to manage complex society with differentiate functions does not mean that it arose because of that need. Pace Nietzsche, just as the current supposed utility of punishment for deterrence (or whatever) doesn’t establish that the initial purpose of punishment was to deter, so the current utility of the state in whatever respect one might point to doesn’t establish its initial purpose.

But this wouldn’t be enough just yet. One would also need to first give an argument for why the original purpose of the state really is what Engels and Lenin say it is–namely, the containment and moderation of irreconcilable class conflict (presumably for that we’ll need to go to Engels himself and see what he says)–and, second, one would also need to demonstrate that the initial purpose for establishing the state is still, in some sense, relevant and present. Clearly, if the genealogical explanation Engels gives is wrong, or if it were right but it could decisively be shown that class conflict had been resolved, then Lenin’s conclusion wouldn’t go through. The latter option seems highly implausible since class conflict seems very much with us. The former, however, might cause some trouble.

Here, again, we would need to depart from the text and do a in-depth study of Engels’ (and probably Marx’s) writings to assess those genealogical arguments. I won’t do that here, but this might make good reading for a further installment in this series. In lieu, I’ll stick another flag here as I did in the first section.

The second related place one might push Lenin back is with respect to the argument that the armed violence that results with the collapse of the state is the result of a return to a kind of naked class antagonism. This also seems to imply that these kinds of violent events occur only under the conditions of class conflict which, in turn, sounds a bit utopian. Won’t there still be instances in which people fight and rob and steal from one another within a classless society? If not, then it seems that one is laying the explanation of every conflict, every jealousy, every disagreement that ends with blood at the feet of class conflict. This seems not only terribly simplistic and naive and at odds with certain basic assumptions about psychology, but also appears to idolize the working class to the extreme; is the working class so psychologically situated that workers never fight?

I think there’s something to this argument, and there are hints elsewhere in Lenin’s writings that seem to point to the kind of absolute faith he had in the post-revolutionary society to just be able to do things right. So, I don’t want to dismiss it out of hand. Nevertheless, the argument is at least partially an uncharitable one since, strictly speaking, nothing is said about the elimination of all violence or conflict. One might grant that conflicts will still exist between individuals or small groups, but insist that these conflicts will not be irreconcilable nor will they be based on some deep contradiction. How they’ll be settled remains a mystery (surely, a better story will be needed than: “they’ll be reconciled because one person will kill the other”!) but there’s space for this kind of position.

Furthermore, one can also claim that the there will be much less violence in the absence of class conflict because the world that we’re considering is precisely the one in which the means of production have been harnessed to provide for the needs of everyone. In such a world, the very motivation for the kind of mass violence associated with peasant riots–poverty, collective revenge for social wrongs, lack of food or luxury that belong to the landowner, etc.–will be entirely undercut. If each of us has what we need and none of us is oppressing the other, then what reason would we have to collectively engage in mass violence, robbery, pillaging, etc.? Does this mean that jealous men won’t kill each other over petty shit? Of course not! But note that jealous men kill each other over petty shit even with the presence of the state! Nothing is made worse. Individuals will still continue to have the same kind of psychologies, but nobody will have motivation to commit the kind of collective violence that now occurs in the vacuum of a collapsed state.

[On the flip side, I think the argument can be made that there will be new motivation for collective action against individuals who, because of idiosyncratic or pathological differences nevertheless wanted to steal or murder or or pillage for its own sake. Specifically, in a mirror to the current state of affairs we would be on guard against anyone who is able to use violence to disrupt the general state of equality we’ve set up since they would pose a threat to the system that fulfills our needs. This needs to be much more fleshed out, but I think there’s an argument there.]

However, one problem with this response to the somewhat uncharitable argument I presented earlier is that it leaves room for a different line of attack. Namely, if all conflict is not necessarily class conflict and if this conflict can be explained in simpler psychological terms, then perhaps the explanation for why violence occurs in the vacuum of weakened state power can also be explained in such terms. That is, one might argue that mass peasant violence occurs not because of class conflict but because people are naturally greedy and they are always interested in accumulating more and more stuff. Mix that in with a theory of group mentality and how it operates and you have an explanation that doesn’t have anything to do with classes. And if that’s right, then the state doesn’t come in as something contingent that is brought in simply to contain and avoid class antagonisms, but as something necessary to curb natural inclinations.

Here, again, the genealogical argument that I don’t provide once again proves vital!

3. The State as an Instrument for the Exploitation of the Oppressed Class


Maintaining the state requires maintaining certain means which are necessary for its support. These are obtained through the levying of taxes and through the appointment of officials who are qualified to collect these taxes. Naturally, such people come to take a privileged position in society as the state grows in power. In pointing this out, claims Lenin, Engels is once again drawing our attention to the purpose of this stratification: “The main question indicated is: what is it that places [the officials] above society?” (pg. 14) This answer to this question is, as could be predicted, the growth of economic influence.

To see why this is the case, Lenin walks us through more of Engels’ story of the emergence of the state. Initially, as we have learned, the state emerges because of class conflict. However, because it also emerges within that conflict, it by default becomes the-state-of-the-class-which-wields-the-most-economic-influence. Thus, the state “as a rule” (Engels’ words!) automatically comes to support and justify the economic interests of the dominant class: the feudal state supports and justifies the maintenance of slaves and serfs (i.e. the feudal mode of production), and the modern state supports and justifies the maintenance of wage labor (i.e. the capitalist mode of production).

The argument here is a bit obscure (why is it that “[the state] is, as a rule, the state of the most powerful, economically dominant class”?), but, given the context in which Lenin presents the quote, I think the argument is meant to be as follows. The state, in its inception, is ex hypothesis created as a tool and does not have an autonomous life–it does not (as yet?) have any “state interests” which it pursues independently. Consequently, it must be yielded by one group or another. However, it is nevertheless populated by people who make it run. And if the question is between whether the more dominant or the less dominant group will have influence over these people, and hence, over the state, the answer seems to be obviously in favor of the former rather than the latter. Why? Simply put, because the economically dominant class buys the state and co-opts it for its purposes. Hence, Lenin’s quote of Engels that:

“Wealth exercises its power indirectly, but all the more surely,” first, by means of the “direct corruption of officials” (America); second, by means of “an alliance between the government and Stock Exchange” (France and America)

The State and Revolution Chapter 1, Section 3, pg. 15

This reading is reinforced by Lenin’s subsequent remarks railing against his political opponents, arguing that the coalition government established after the February Revolution was immediately bought out by capital and immediately went to work serving capital.

Contained in this tirade is also a more general critique of democracy and democratic republics. It is under these forms of government, specifically, that capital can exert its influence most easily and form what Lenin calls a “political shell for capitalism…[in which] no change either of persons, of institutions, or of parties in the bourgeois-democratic republic, can shake it.” (pg. 15-16) Here, again, Lenin’s justification is obscure (or missing!), but it’s clear that the implication is that just like the shell of a clam obscures the ligament inside from view, so the political shell of democracy is supposed to obscure capital’s influence.

This, he thinks, is why Engels also believes that universal suffrage is nothing but a tool for bourgeois rule. If all that voting in democratic republics does is swap the players out within a static, hijacked system that always serves the dominant economic class, then enfranchising more people simply won’t make a difference in their liberation. They will simply elect individuals who will immediately be co-opted by the existing machinery of the state.

It seems to me that this is a crucial argument (and one to which I will return shortly), but Lenin’s stated intentions here are (apparently) just to clarify that Marx and Engels’ views are not amicable to any attempts to work within the state.


This section promised to supply the missing piece that we were looking for in the analysis of section one: viz. why the state is always necessarily a tool for the oppression of one class by the economically dominant one. However, I’m not sure what to make of the argument that’s presented. If my summary is correct, then the argument is, again, that the state serves this purpose because it is essentially bought out by the economically dominant class either directly on indirectly. Now, I think some basic knowledge of the workings of American government makes this argument seem plausible–the military-industrial complex (or the military-industrial-information complex) gives us a really good model for how this actually works in practice. So, I don’t want to deny that this does, in fact, happen. Nor do I want to deny the fact that the state does (and seems to always have) operate to secure the necessary conditions for a particular period’s mode of production (c.f. Elizabeth Anderson’s recent book on private government for evidence of that).

However, what this shows is that the state can easily come to be under the influence of one or another group, and not that it must necessarily always be a tool of oppression by one class against the other. What Lenin needs is the latter claim and not the former. So, I still remain puzzled about why he thinks he’s shown the latter. In fact, the part of what he quotes from Engels seems to suggest that Engels himself doesn’t think that this is a necessity claim. I quote:

By way of exception, however, periods occur in which the warring classes balance each other so nearly that the state power, as ostensible mediator, acquires a certain degree of independence of both. Such were the absolute monarchies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Bonapartism of the First and Second Empires in France, and the Bismarck regime in Germany.

Lenin quoting Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

If this is true, then it’s not true that the state necessarily has to be a tool of oppression since it can, even if only as an exception, acquire an independent status of those who would wield it in that way. Accepting this is not tantamount to denying that, nevertheless, the state does not usually or normally come to play such an oppressive role, nor that it’s currently playing such a role. Rather it only leaves open room for the possibility that it might not under certain conditions.

Now, in saying this, I don’t mean to suggest that a ruling state independent of any class interest is a good thing–in fact, such independence might be the worst of all possible worlds. I’m don’t know too much about the First and Second Empires and nothing at all about Bismarck’s Germany, so I can’t speak to that, but one can easily see how a powerful state with its own interests could easily become a totalitarian state.

Nevertheless, the there is a theoretical opening in the argument here that allows us to at least make sense of what might be appealing to a more moderate position. If the state can be made into a genuinely neutral arbiter under certain conditions, or if it can be wielded by the oppressed under others, then it might be best not to destroy it, but to use it for precisely those purposes by attaining those conditions.

However, this is still only a theoretical possibility and does not provide any answer to the difficult question: namely, what should we do if the state is currently in the hands of an oppressive class and being used for the oppression of another? This is, arguably, the situation in which we find ourselves (although, ironically, not the situation that Lenin himself sees in the Kerensky government).

The moderate answer to this question would be, presumably, to bring about the conditions that would allow the state to either attain some significant independence from class interests, or those that would allow it to be wielded by the oppressed. What these conditions might be remains unclear, although the general answer given in the twentieth century was to advocate for institutional development and reform. I admit, my sympathies still lie with in this direction. However, it bears stressing just how vulnerable such institutions are and how interested capital is in infiltrating them and destroying them for its own purposes. One doesn’t need to look beyond the Trump presidency’s blatant cronyism as evidence of this (however, feel free to go back to Citizens United, the rise of Super PACs, the War on Terror, trickle-down-economics, union busting, and pretty much every conservative administration in the last 100 years if you feel like it).

Here, Lenin’s argument still has some life: as long as class antagonisms exist the state will be vulnerable (far more vulnerable!) to the influence of those who control the means of production and will come to be used as a tool for the oppression of those who do not. Thus, as we have seen, any temporary advantages that might be gained through slow, incremental, decades-long building up of institutional reforms intended to remove that vulnerability can always we wiped out and the oppressive status resumed. If that’s correct, then we have two options: the creation of an invulnerable and incorruptible state, or the permanent removal of the underlying class antagonism (i.e. the socialist revolution). If I’m being honest, I have no idea what would be required to do the former, but it seems wildly implausible. And whether the latter is only viable if Marx and Engels are right about the underlying role that class antagonism is supposed to play.

It’s worth noting at this point that even if one advocates for the permanent removal of the underlying class antagonism, nothing has been shown that this must be done violently. We can grant Lenin everything that has been said so far, reject working within the state, and still not endorse violent means.

Nevertheless, there is something like an argument forming in the background from which we might be able to tease out Lenin’s fundamental assumptions. Specifically, Lenin appears to be thinking something along the following lines: before the arrival of the state, society was “a self-acting armed organization of the population”; it arrives on the scene because this way of doing things becomes impossible precisely because it risks mass violence and the collapse of the society. In order to avoid this possibility, the state disarms the population and obtains a monopoly on violence in the name of a shared interest for society as a whole. However, given the context in which it arises, it is immediately corrupted by the economically dominant class and it becomes the defacto militarized arm of that economically dominant class, leaving the economically subservient class in an oppressed position. What this amounts to, then, is not any fundamental change in the conflict between the two classes, but a kind of forced disarmament of and continued violence against the weaker class; i.e. an imposed handicap. In that sense, the arrival of the state only serves to exacerbate the very thing it was meant to address–the irreconcilable class conflict. If this is the case, then it appears that what needs to happen is, at the very least, for the weaker class to be rearmed so that it can fight back against its oppressor’s aggression. Crucially, such fighting back means using violence against the state.

I’ll only make one final point about this story since I’m not sure that this is what Lenin’s argument actually is and I’m only trying to fill in the gaps thus far. First, it’s interesting to note that there’s a kind of cyclical, almost biblical element to the kind of story told here: we start an initial, primitive self-acting armed society with limited means of production, which is divided by an advance in the means of production resulting in class antagonisms. These class antagonisms are kept at bay by a state which grants one side the right to use violence and which oppresses one for the benefit of the other. Under this arrangement, however, great strides in production are made as society advances to different modes of production, ending in the capitalist mode which is able to produce so much that all of the needs of society are satisfied. Given the characteristics of the capitalist mode of production, however, the advances in production also come with an increase in class consciousness which allows the oppressed class to realize its predicament, arm itself, seize the means of production for itself, and banish the oppressing class. With this final revolutionary act, the initial rift is finally closed, and society returns, once again, to a self-acting armed organization of people, now fully satisfied and needing nothing.

This is, of course, interesting for the easily identifiable religious elements present: a simple start, a fall from grace, trials and tribulations, redemption through knowledge of the truth, final confrontation against the Other, and a return to the Father. However, these elements can also be found in Marxism in general. What’s specifically interesting, and what I suspect is uniquely brought in by Lenin, is that the use of violence drive everything! It is through the loss of the ability to inflict violence that the oppressed class becomes oppressed, and it is through regaining that ability that it is able to restore the original balance. The question, however, is still whether this is the right story to tell (both with respect to Lenin and with respect to Marxism).

4. The “Withering Away” of the State and Violent Revolution


Lenin begins this section with a quote from Engels about the fate the state after the socialist revolution. Briefly put, once the proletariat seize the state they will use it to seize the means of production which will at the same time end class antagonisms and end the role of the state qua state. The idea is straightforward: the state’s purpose is precisely to keep class antagonisms at bay. In turn, these class antagonisms are produced on the basis of a distinction between those who own the means of production and those who do not. So, by socializing the means of production, the proletariat removes the distinction, hence, removing class antagonisms, hence, removing the need for the state. Crucially, however, this doesn’t happen overnight, and the socialization of the means of production are a self-undermining act of the state which makes it superfluous. In Engels’ famous words:

The state is not ‘abolished,’ it withers away.

Engels Anti-Durhing p.303 third German Edition (italic in original)

Lenin claims that people read the claim that the state withers away rather than being abolished as evidence that Engels was in favor of a slow and gradual change rather than a revolution. This, however, “is the crudest distortion of Marxism, advantageous only to the bourgeoisie.” (pg. 19)

The proper interpretation is as follows. First, in Engels’ claim that by seizing state power the proletariat abolishes the state as state, the use of the first term ‘state’ should be given a narrow reading and the second should be given a wide reading. That is, the seizure of power abolishes the bourgeois state as state simpliciter. Crucially, there’s no withering away of this state–rather, it is, as Lenin points out, abolished. In other words, the seizing of state power amounts to a revolution. What withers away is the husk of that state which is now in the hands of the proletariat.

Second, given that the state is a “special repressive force”, what follows is that one kind of repressive force is abolished (that of the bourgeoisie) and another (that of the proletariat) is put in its place–at least until it withers away.

Third, the withering away of the proletariat state occurs only after the state has done its job–i.e. only after the means of production have been socialized. This means that the state can’t wither away incrementally before it does its job–thus, presumably, attempts to enter the state and weaken in from within are fundamentally counterproductive. Interestingly, Lenin also claims that the withering away of the proletariat state will also mean the withering away of democracy. Here, I quote in full:

We all know that the political form of the “state” [after the socialist revolution] is the most complete democracy. But it never enters the head of any of the opportunists who shamelessly distort Marxism that Engels is consequently speaking here of democracy “ceasing of itself,” or “withering away.” This seems very strange at first sight; but it is “incomprehensible” only to those who have not pondered over the fact that democracy is also a state and that, consequently, democracy will also disappear when the state disappears. Revolution alone can “abolish” the bourgeois state. The state in general, i.e., the most complete democracy, can only “wither away.”

The State and Revolution, Ch. 1, Section 4, pg 21

In other words, claims Lenin, Engels is saying something much stronger than what people take him to mean. If the proletarian state just is the means by which the proletariat organizes itself after the revolution, if those means are absolute democracy, and if that state is meant to wither away, then, clearly, it is democracy that withers away and not Congress or Parliament.

Fourth, contrary to popular opinion, Engels’ claims are directed not only to anarchists (whom he addresses explicitly in Lenin’s quote), but also to any opportunists (mention of whom is missing from the quoted passage). Thus, the goal of the revolutionary should not be to fight for a democratic republic since a democratic republic is merely “the best form of the state for the proletariat under capitalism.” (pg. 22; italics mine) Rather, they should be aiming far beyond that and at the direct abolition of the state via revolution.

Fifth, this revolution must be a violent one. Here, Lenin brings in a separate passage from Anti Duhring. I’ll reproduce the paragraph in full here since this is a crucial passage that I’ll return to later.

…That force, however, plays another role [other than that of diabolical power] in history, a revolutionary role; that, in the words of Marx, it is the midwife of every old society which is pregnant with the new, that it is the instrument by the aid of which the social movement forces its way through and shatters the dead, fossilized political forms–of this there is not a word in Herr Duhring. It is only with sighs and groans that he admits the possibility that force will perhaps be necessary for the overthrow of the economic system of exploitation–unfortunately, because all use of force, forsooth, demoralizes the person who uses it. And this in spite of the immense moral and spiritual impetus which has resulted from every victorious revolution! And this in Germany, where a violent collision–which indeed may be forced on the people–would at least have the advantage of wiping out the servility which has permeated the national consciousness as a result of the humiliation of the Thirty Years’ War. And this parson’s mode of thought–lifeless, insipid and impotent–claims to impose itself on the most revolutionary party which history has known!

Engels, Anti-Duhring pg. 193, third German edition, Part II, Chapter IV (Lenin’s citation)

To Lenin, this is nothing short of a panegyric in favor of violence and is only ignored for opportunist purposes. Furthermore, this panegyric is repeated in Marx’s The Poverty of Philosophy, The Communist Manifesto, and his criticisms of the Gotha Program. More dramatically:

The necessity of systematically imbuing the masses with this and precisely this view of violent revolution lies at the root of all the teaching of Marx and Engels.

Lenin The State and Revolution Ch. 1, Section 4, pg. 25

The chapter then closes with a promise that this claim will be further elaborated by looking at Marx and Engels’ separate treatment of the failed revolutions of 1848 and 1871.


As with section three, this section promised to provide us with a missing puzzle piece. And as with section three–though perhaps even more so–I find the core argument about the role of violence presented here rather…bad. Let me begin with that before I loop around to discuss the beginning commentary on Engels.

What Lenin wants to show is that Engels was really in favor of a violent revolution and the evidence for that is the passage I quote above in full. However, despite his protestations that only opportunists see Engels’ panegyric as anything other than a full-throated call for violence, I just find that a bit hard to believe (maybe that makes me an opportunist).

Specifically, it seems to me that the purpose of this quoted passage is primarily as a polemic against Duhring and his advocacy of inaction. Now, it does appear that Duhring is, from what I can pick up from the passage, grounding his opposition to acting on the fact that to act would require using force. But to raise an objection to that claim is not to praise violence! In fact, Engels could be interpreted here as saying “yes, I know the use of violence is demoralizing, but in certain cases it is necessary–if only to make people take more seriously the threat that they’re facing.” Note, for example, that he says the use of force may be thrust upon the people and that this might be good because it might have a motivating effect. What Engels seems to be arguing against is the more general claim of the coward who might say “look, violence is always bad, and if standing up for something means that violence might be used against me or that I might have to use violence against someone else, then it’s better not to do anything.” What Engels appears to be doing is arguing that the use of force is not a categorical reason against doing something and that, in fact, in the particular case of Germany at Duhring’s time, the badness of using force is outweighed by what he stands to gain. It’s clear, however, that to say that the use of force is not a categorical reason for acting does not by any means imply that the use of force is always necessary. What follows is not, as Lenin insists, that the revolution must be violent and that the proletariat must be imbued with a violent class consciousness. If anything, what follows is that the proletariat must be willing to use violence if it comes to that.

These are two different claims. It’s one thing to say that it may be worth it to use violence to, say, save your child from danger, and it’s another thing to say that the use of violence is always necessary to save your child from danger. The former claim is a reasonable one even for people who abhor violence; the latter is the claim of a maniac. Mutatis mutandis, it’s one thing to say that the revolution may require the use of violence, and another to say that there must be a violent revolution. Lenin needs the latter, but I haven’t seen an argument for that yet, and I certainly don’t see it as contained in this passage from Engels.

That being said, it’s easy to see how even the weaker claim that I’ve argued for can be made much stronger very quickly. If by definition the state is a tool of oppression whose purpose is to exercise force and violence against the proletariat, then it seems almost certain that it will retaliate to any demand for a peaceful revolution with exercise of that force. And given that certainty of that force, if the only options are “find ways to resist and combat that force in turn” or “submit rather than risk it”, then the former becomes appealing. In that kind of situation, one may as well go in fully prepared to use violence.

Likewise, it’s easy to see how even the weaker claim could be subject to abuse. If we take a loose definition of the use of force without any constraint about the proportionality of its use, or, if alternatively, the value of what is to be gained by the revolution is to be inflated without limit, then anything goes.

But it’s also true that the weaker claim is not an absurd one, and that, in fact, I have a much harder time accepting it’s negation. Is it really never acceptable to use violence against the state? (Against anyone?) Was the French Resistance not justified? Was the Warsaw Uprising not justified? Was John Brown not justified? If they were, then there are some conditions under which the use of violence, however demoralizing, can be justified. Once that’s established, what we need is a method of finding out which cases are ones in which we can use violence and which ones are not. This is beyond the scope of this reading series (though my favorite on this subject is De Beuvoir), but it’s enough here to argue that there’s a middle path between a violent revolution is necessary and violence in a revolution is prohibited.

With regards to Lenin’s other arguments about Engels’ claims, I actually think he’s right–I can’t see another way of reading the claim that the state qua state is abolished yet nevertheless also withers than by giving wide and narrow readings of the term ‘state’ here. And, indeed, it makes sense that the state in the hands of one should be abolished and in the hands of the other it should disappear.

What I’m more skeptical of are two further claims. The first is Lenin’s claim that the withering away of the proletariat state means a withering away of absolute democracy. This simply sounds like utopianism to me. I can grant the claim that there will be no need for a separate body to exist outside of society to moderate class conflict. However, it does not mean that there will be no need for society to coordinate and organize itself according to some means. And here, I think Lenin conflates the state-as-a-means-of-stopping-class-conflict and (what might be called) the state-as-a-means-of-coordinating-society. There’s no need for the latter to be outside of society, and, in fact, the fact that it’s absolute makes it a direct expression of that society, and it can still provide the coordinating function (even if we don’t call it a state). Thus, I think it’s best to read Engels as saying that withers away on this view is the state as a tool of oppression, but absolute democracy still remains as a means of coordination.

Now, I think the charitable way to read Lenin here is as leaving open the option for some new not-yet-known way of organizing society. This, after all, was Marx and Engels’ preferred stance on what happens after full communism. But I think Lenin just got ahead of himself here.

Finally, it’s worth noting that we can see the shadows of totalitarianism in Lenin’s previous claim about the withering away of democracy and his claim that the proletarian state nevertheless doesn’t wither away until it has completed its job. If the role of the proletarian state before it withers away is to a) ensure the seizure of the means of production and b) to oppress the former oppressors (who, while still controlling the means of production will always try to get control of the state), then as long as there are enemies of the revolution internally or externally, the state and its increasing power can be justified. I don’t mean to run quickly over this last element, but I’ve gone on for long enough. I promise I’ll return at a later point.

Wowee! That was only Chapter 1! And it took forever! Chapter 2 coming soon.

3 thoughts on “Socialist Reading Series I: The State and Revolution [Part 1]

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