Socialist Reading Series I: The State and Revolution [Part 2]

Alright, let’s turn to Chapter 2 of TSaR (could there be a more fitting acronym?!). Discussion of Chapter 1 can be found here.

Chapter 2: The State and Revolution. The Experience of 1848-51

  1. The Eve of the Revolution


As stated at the end of the previous chapter, Lenin is going to take us through Marx and Engels’ treatments of the revolutions of 1848 and 1871 as evidence that his (Lenin’s) interpretation of the need for a violent revolution is correct. This particular section deals with Marx’s thoughts prior to 1848 and with remarks in The Communist Manifesto.

Specifically, Lenin zeroes in on a passage from the CM about the development of the revolution.

The first step in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy. The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class; and to increase the total of productive forces as readily as possible.

The Communist Manifesto pg. 37 in the 7th German Edition 1906 (Lenin’s citation)

What’s crucial for Lenin in this passage is this last definition of the proletariat state as a ruling class. It is this definition that Lenin sees as advocating for the infamous ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ (a phrase, I should say, appears like once in a letter that Marx wrote), and it is this definition that the moderates surrounding Lenin fail to account for in their approaches to revolution.

Putting together what we’ve learned already, then, we get something like the following picture: the state is always necessarily a tool of class oppression, the bourgeois form of which must be destroyed by the proletariat and supplanted with a proletariat state that subsequently withers away. This latter state is the proletariat itself organized as a ruling class, and since the state always remains a tool for oppression, then it must be a directed oppression against the bourgeoisie by the proletariat until the aforementioned withering is complete.

More succinctly, the existing state must be destroyed and replaced with an organized ruling class of the proletariat who finish off the capitalist exploiters.

This vision of the state as a ruling class comprised of the proletariat and oppressing the is one that is starkly at odds with any moderate position which sees a kind of peaceful co-existence between capitalists and the proletariat. These positions, claims Lenin, are utopian and are at the root of the failure of the 1848 revolutions; to take such a moderate position in 1917 would be tantamount to distorting Marx and making the same mistake again.

Furthermore, Lenin argues that only the proletariat class can overthrow the bourgeoisie since only it, through its role in economic production, can unite all the disparate peoples who are oppressed by the capitalists.

Lenin then summarizes what he takes to have shown:

The teaching of the class struggle, when applied by Marx to the question of the state and of the socialist revolution, leads of necessity to the recognition of the political rule of the proletariat, of its dictatorship, i.e., of power shared with none and relying directly upon the armed force of the masses. The overthrow of the bourgeoisie can be achieved only by the proletariat becoming transformed into the ruling class, capable of crushing the inevitable and desperate resistance of the bourgeoisie, and of organizing all the toiling and exploited masses for the new economic order.

The proletariat needs state power, the centralized organization of force, the organization of violence, both to crush the resistance of the exploiters and to lead the enormous mass of the population–the peasantry, the petty bourgeoisie, the semi-proletarians–in the work of organizing socialist economy.

The State and Revolution Chapter 2, pg. 30

Lenin then closes with a refinement of this general argument to work in the role of the worker’s party. I believe it’s supposed to go something like this: if this reading of Marx is correct (and Lenin has no doubts that it is), then the state, as we’ve seen, needs to be used as a tool of oppression and violence against the bourgeoisie. But if that’s the case, then the state can’t include the bourgeoisie, and will only be comprised of the proletariat. But since the vast masses that comprise the proletariat have been broken up by the bourgeoisie, it falls on a particular sector of the proletariat to take up the mantle of the state and do the necessary work. Which sector is that? Well, it’s the one that best understands Marxism and which has a consciousness advanced enough to only oppress the former oppressors; i.e. the worker’s party informed by a proper understanding of Marx (i.e. surprise, surprise, the Bolsheviks).


I admit, I’m struggling a lot with this section. Lenin moves really quickly, but it seems to me that the crux of the entire argument rests on the simple equation of ‘state = tool of oppression against a rival class’ and ‘state = political rule’, along with an equivocation between oppression, force, and violence.

If the proletariat state is defined as an organized political rule by the proletariat class, and if any and every state is always a tool of oppression by one class against another, then substituting the middle terms, it follows that political rule by the proletariat class will be oppressive against the rival capitalist class. If, furthermore, oppression is force is violence, then it follows that political rule by the proletariat class will be violent against the capitalist class. What also follows from this is also that any political rule will always be (and has always been) characterized by the use of violence against its opposing class.

This argument seems, at the very least, valid. What’s crucial here is whether the posited equivalences are true. This takes us back to the perennial question of whether the state is necessarily a tool of class oppression–a question which I’ve set to the side for this first reading series but which we’ll pick up later. But let’s grant that for now and set that equivalence aside. Now, it’s clear that Marx endorsed the second equivalence between state and the exercise of political rule held, so, Lenin’s point carries: the proletariat state would, indeed, be a state in which the proletariat exercise political rule. What we’re left with, then, is the question of whether the exercise of political power is necessarily the exercise of violence by one class against the other.

Here, I begin to chafe a bit. It seems to me that there are at least two ways to think of the exercise of political power here. One is put in terms of the ability to cause violence and oppress, the other is put in terms of the actual use of violence and oppression. On the former view, one class has political power just in case it can cause violence against the other class (even if such violence is never used); on the latter, one class has political power just in case it does cause violence against the other.

The difference between the two can be illustrated as the difference between my having a handgun so I can fight off a potential burglar who comes into my house and my having a handgun and using it to actively hunt down burglars in my neighborhood. One view on power says that I have power in both cases (and am using it if and when I shoot a burglar); the other says that I only have the power insofar as I’m shooting burglars.

Taking this analogy to the state level, one might say that by gaining the ability to rule politically the proletariat state acquires the means to defend itself through the use of violence against the intrusions of the formerly powerful bourgeoisie. Now, this is markedly different from the stronger claim that in taking power the proletariat state must use violence to crush its opposition since that’s just what it means to have political power. This stronger reading takes it that there is no political power unless it is actively used to oppress and cause violence against the bourgeoisie while the weaker reading takes it that one can have political power insofar as one has the ability (used or otherwise) to cause violence to them.

The important point is that this distinction leaves room for a view of political rule in which the use of force and violence is reactive rather than proactive. This is perfectly compatible with the claim that the state is always a tool for oppression since, after all, tools retain their powers even when they’re not in use. It is also compatible with the claim that the state is an organization of political rule if we we grant that political rule involves the possibility of using force and not simply its actual use.

Again, the difference here in practice is the difference between having a political body which capable of defending the revolution with arms and a political body whose purpose is to kill the enemies of the revolution.

I think it’s not exactly clear which version Lenin is advocating for here. If I squint hard enough I can see him as strictly advocating for the former, weaker version–after all, he does say that the proletariat must transform itself into a class “capable of crushing the inevitable and desperate resistance of the bourgeoisie” [emphasis mine]. Thus, one could read him as merely arguing that the proletariat class must be one that violently overthrows the oppressive state, then maintains its monopoly on violence until such a time that it is no longer needed. But part of me thinks that he’s really pushing for the stronger view that the rule of the proletariat state needs to be proactively violent until there’s no more classes to be violent against.

I don’t see the weaker version as objectionable. Or, at the very least, I don’t see it as unreasonable. However, the stronger version still makes me uncomfortable since it seems to rely on this kind of fetishization of violence that I just don’t care for. I’m also not convinced that the view of power that underlies this version and which rests on the claim that power just is the active use of violence is a good one.

Finally, something needs to be said about the role of the party that sneaks into the very end of the section and which lays the grounds for a single party state. I tried to present the argument in the most charitable way possible in the summary section by pointing out that the way the definitions of the state and political power are laid out excludes the possibility of a state that’s comprised of bourgeois and proletariat parties. This might be true, but it’s clear that Lenin has set things up that makes it almost impossible for a plurality of, say, proletariat parties to work in a state as well. This is because every party that has the same (proper) reading for Marx will, de facto, just be the same party, and every party that doesn’t have that reading will either be opportunistic, or in the worst case, a class enemy that must be destroyed to protect the revolution. What this means is that there will always be one party that has things right, and a bunch of others that must either be defeated or united by force under the party doctrine.

This, for what it’s worth, is something that it seems to me comes purely from Lenin and isn’t to be found in Marx. He doesn’t use any quotes from Marx or Engels to support this, and it seems to me to be entirely brought in from Lenin’s own views about the importance of the party.

“Look over there! Enemies of the revolution!” – Lenin (probably)

2. The Revolution Summed Up


So, what did Marx make of the ’48-’51 revolution? His full assessment is in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (EB) from which Lenin specifically focuses on Marx’s claim that the revolution failed in France because it tried to work within the state. Here’s Marx:

The parliamentary republic finally, in its struggle against the revolution, found itself compelled to strengthen, along with the repressive measures, the resources and centralization of governmental power. All the revolutions perfected this machine, instead of smashing it up. The Parties that contended in turn for domination regarded the possession of this huge state edifice as the principal spoils of the victor.

Lenin quoting Marx. Italics Lenin’s

In short, this passage confirms what Lenin had presented in chapter 1 in his discussion of Engels: the state is not something that can be co-opted by the revolution, but something that has to be overthrown, destroyed, and replaced.

Lenin then walks us through a brief description of the history and development of the modern bourgeois state in France. In doing so, he gives a more specific explanation of something else that we saw previously in Engels–namely, he outlines how the agents of the state come to have the interests of the ruling class rather than the oppressed class. Unlike the general remarks we saw earlier, this is an explanation of how this specifically happens in the bourgeois state as we recognize it and how working within the state failed under the specific conditions of ’48-’51.

Regarding its birth, Lenin says the bourgeois state forms with the collapse of absolutism and feudalism (think 1789 and its consequences). Crucially, this state is primarily characterized by two institutions that displace the existing ones that preceded it: bureaucracy and the standing army [side note: prior to the French Revolution, the majority of warfare was a job for nobility and hired mercenaries; it was only following the French Revolution and the threat posed to it by the monarchs of Europe that the concept of mass conscription and a standing republican army takes hold. For a really really good book on this check out David Bell’s The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as we Know it.] These, in turn, stand as “a parasite on the body of bourgeois society” which it needs in order to suppress, repress, and contain class antagonisms. And it is through these organizations that the state evolves with each subsequent bourgeois revolution that spread on the heels of the French. New lessons are learned and the institutions are developed and perfected to suppress more effectively.

Crucially, what happens with each bourgeois revolution is the establishment of these two institutions, which, in turn, requires the appointment of government posts and positions of power. In filling these positions, the people who are involved in the institutions are separated and placed above the masses and apart from their interests. As parasites on the body of bourgeois society, their own survival depends on the existence of the bourgeoisie, and they come to be work for the benefits of that class.

Interestingly, Lenin doesn’t talk about how this played out in France, but illustrates this point with how the developments played out in Russia following the (bourgeois) revolution that overthrew the Romanovs. Following that revolution, notes Lenin, all the places of power that used to be populated by the Black Hundreds (ultra nationalist supporters of the tsar) simply were redistributed to members of some of the “moderate” Mensheviks, Social-Revolutionaries, and Kadets parties (each of which were, of course, Lenin’s enemies). Then, with that task complete, all talk of implementing radical changes and instituting reforms suddenly stopped or were indefinitely shelved.

Importantly, as this process of co-optation, betrayal, and inaction plays out, it does not go unnoticed by the proletariat, but serves to demonstrate just what they should expect from any moderates who want to participate in the state as a means of reform–viz., nothing. As the proletariat’s consciousness is raised through this realization, it becomes the best interest of the bourgeoisie and to more effectively perfect the state and its suppressive powers against its enemies.

The point, in all this, is, of course, clear: by participating in perfecting the state and working within it, the revolutionaries of 1848 did nothing more but strengthen the bourgeoisie’s ability to oppress. cannot improve the lot of the proletariat by working through the state, but, again, only by destroying it.

Anticipating an objection, Lenin notes that even if these conditions lead Marx to conclude that this is what the problem was in France in ’51, one may not be justified in extrapolating further than that. Can Marx’s claim be generalized? Unsurprisingly, given the fact that Lenin has already generalized it, he argues that it can. Here, the argument is that since ’51 the same process of consolidation of power against the proletariat has appeared in every country:

On the one hand, the development of “parliamentary power” in the republican countries (France, America, Switzerland), as well as in the monarchies (England, Germany to a certain extent, Italy, the Scandinavian countries, etc.); on the other hand, a struggle for power between the various bourgeois and petty-bourgeois parties which distribute and re-distribute the “spoils” of office, while the foundations of bourgeois society remain unchallenged. Finally, the perfection and consolidation of “executive power,” its bureaucratic and military apparatus

Lenin, The State and Revolution, Chapter 2, Section 3

The argument here is, I admit, a bit obscure, but I believe it’s supposed to be that in every developed country the impetus has been in working within the state–either through parliamentary politics or the re-assignments of offices in non-parliamentary governments, and never towards following any non-state interventions. I’ll return to why I find this argument odd below, but this is the best I can make of it here.

Finally, Lenin ends this section by noting that the global trend as of 1917 is towards imperialism, imperial war, and state-capitalism (note, he’s writing this years before the rise of fascism which makes state-capitalism it’s modus operandi), and that these forces are uniting to further oppress and suppress the proletariat populations of the world.


I thought this section was one of the most interesting and most frustrating section so far. It’s interesting insofar as it describes the all-too-familiar process by which participation with the state blunts, subsumes, and defeats all promises of radical reform and change.

I can’t help but draw the parallels between Lenin’s haranguing of people who enter into office promising radical change only to be immediately sucked into the bureaucratic machinery, their promises of reform shelved, and the kind of disappointment that so many of us felt after Obama’s 2008 election. I don’t say that to place blame on Obama himself, but rather to highlight the fact that for many of us, the Obama promise seemed like a truly revolutionary one at the time and many of us seriously thought that with his election there would be some serious changes in place. Instead, nothing like that happened. Sure, I suppose some progress was made (though, to be honest, I’m finding it hard to see what that progress is in light of the last three years), but what was made clear to everyone was just how little could actually be accomplished while working from within the state bureaucracy. I’m afraid similar hopes have been hoisted on the Sanders campaign (a hoisting I’m guilty of as well) and that we’re still under the impression that if just the right people can get in office, then, everything would be alright. In that sense, Lenin’s description and analysis of the attempts to work within the state hits closer to home than I expected. So as far as putting his finger on an interesting phenomenon, Lenin remains an interesting read.

Nevertheless, I find the actual arguments really really thin! In fact, he doesn’t really put forward any arguments about the formation of the bourgeois state, its development, or the opposition that the proletariat must play (he doesn’t really even talk about France, as he says he will, but mostly draws on his own analysis of Russia!). Rather, he just asserts some claims without defending them, and then says that this has been proven by history. I’ve tried to fill in some of the details above (viz. the remarks about the development of the standing army), but even there I’m kind of speculating. Now, I know that he’s writing to a friendly audience that’s supposed to be familiar with Marx and, admittedly, I only got through half of the EB when I tried to read it, but I really wanted to see more. How does the bureaucracy of the modern bourgeois state prevent reform? Why does everyone who works within the state end up necessarily serving the bourgeoisie? (I tried to give a plausible answer to that in the summary, but I have no idea whether I’m right!)

Speaking of that, I also found it really interesting that nothing is said about the ability to enter into the state and destroy it from within. This, one might think, is what the republican party has been doing in the US since the rise of the Tea Party. It’s clearly effective and it can clearly further class interests (since all republican efforts so far have gone to benefit only the bourgeoisie), but it’s not an instance in which the state is violently overthrown. If so, then, it’s possible that the state can be destroyed by participating within it, but this is something that Lenin doesn’t consider. This is all the more strange given that Lenin’s own Bolsheviks frequently used participation in different organizations opportunistically to destroy them (side note: this was also the tactic used by some real chuds to destroy the grad union I used to belong to).

Finally, I found Lenin’s final argument about whether he’s justified to expand the lessons from ’51 apply outside of France really bizarre. What he needed to show was just as working within the state in France didn’t work in ’51, so working within the state wouldn’t work in 1917, and, presumably in 2019. What he does instead is show that the scope and power of the state is expanding everywhere, and then concludes from that that the conditions that held in France apply other places. But this is patently a bad argument! In fact, it relies on the very assumption that working within the bourgeois state is always bound to fail, and since there’s nothing but bourgeois states or states that function through this swapping around of surface appointments, there’s no reason to try. One could argue that there are notable differences between the material conditions of ’51 France and 1917 Russia, for example, that would make work within the former state a viable option. Or, perhaps, the argument relies on the never-before-established assumption that the stronger the state is, the more likely one is to fail in working within it. Now, this latter claim sounds interesting, but I couldn’t find anything in this section that amounted to an argument for it!

Like I said, frustrating!

3. The Presentation of the Question by Marx in 1852


The question to which Lenin is referring to here is the question of what is going to displace the bourgeois state once it has been destroyed. Marx’s answer, claims Lenin, is a dictatorship of the proletariat. Thus Marx says in a letter to a colleague in 1852 (the letter to which I referred earlier)

And now as to myself, no credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society, nor yet the struggle between them. Long before me, bourgeois historians had described the historical development of class struggle, and bourgeois economists the economic anatomy of the classes. What I did that was new was to prove: 1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production; 2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; 3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society

Lenin quoting Marx; Emphasis Lenin’s

Thus, argues Lenin, the real insight from Marx is not the importance of class struggle, which Marx admits was not his doing, but with the idea that the end of that class struggle requires a dictatorship of the proletariat. The bourgeoisie is perfectly content with accepting everything else in Marx except this last part, but it is precisely that which marks (pun intended) the real Marxist from those opportunists and reformists who do not understand his insight.

This is what Lenin’s arch nemesis Kautsky fails to see. Importantly, the exclusion of the dictatorship of the proletariat from limits all discussion within the acceptable bourgeois discourse and thus removes all revolutionary edge from Marxism.

Lenin ends this short section with two important claims: first, the dictatorship of the proletariat is a necessity–one cannot get to the true classless state of communism without this dictatorship; and, second, that this dictatorship remains a necessity until that classless state is reached.


This section presents probably the most forceful argument Lenin has presented this far, but it all rests on what Marx meant by ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. From what I know, this letter is the only time he uses this phrase and it’s not at all clear what he means by this. The language, of course, invites the worst and harshest reading and Lenin’s comments seem to imply that he intends to take the worst of them. For him, a dictatorship is necessarily violent and forceful, so if Marx advocates for a dictatorship of the proletariat, then he must also be advocating for the use of violence of the proletariat.

But it’s not clear that this is the only way to read Marx. One might think, for example, that ‘dictatorship’ here signifies the role of the person or group of people who set the rules despite the wishes of others. This may very well involve violence, but it does not necessarily imply it. The way in which it is implied is in the sense that violence may be used in those cases in which one, for example, takes up arms or seeks to undermine the authority or rule of those in charge. This is, of course, the way in which, for example, most ordinary people think that the state is authorized to imprison or harm people who refuse to pay taxes, kill others, or take up arms against the government. In this sense, the current state is also dictatorial and Lenin is right to say that this is a kind of dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Now, clearly, there are cases in which this violence is proactive and patently unjust (e.g. the policing of black and brown bodies in the US), but this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a sense in which the use of violence is strictly reactive and used in self-defense. To repeat an earlier point, there’s a big difference between the active use of violence any and all enemies, and the right to defend oneself against those enemies should they choose to regain their previous position. The former still seems objectionable to me; the latter seems reasonable.

[Aside: the question of justice in this context is an interesting one that I can’t engage with fully here. I use the term in its colloquial sense. I understand that there’s an argument in the offing about how what counts as just or unjust is itself a product of the ruling class–a Thrasymachean argument–but I think such arguments are pretty weak. The very fact that we can recognize instances of injustice that go against the ruling power’s interests goes a long way, I think, to holding that the link isn’t as tight as such arguments make things out to be. In other words, I still think there’s an autonomy of ethics.]

This is all more the case if we consider that the end towards which the particular dictatorship is put forth is supposed to be genuine universal liberation. I am fine with a dictatorship that prevents the enslavement or rape of others and fully endorse the use of violence against the use of those who would take up arms or use violence in order to override such edicts. If the dictum is true liberation, then it’s downright stupid to oppose violence in defending it (see my note on Engels’ remarks against Duhring in the previous post for much the same argument). Now, of course, there is always the problem of whether this is the end in question (here, again, I still think de Beauvoir has the best take), but this is an orthogonal problem (though very important one).

So, even if we grant Lenin that the revolution requires a dictatorship of the proletariat, the conclusions that should be drawn from this are unclear until we settle the question of what precisely is meant by this term. In fact, even if we grant that a dictatorship necessarily implies the use of violence, the question still remains as to what is meant by violence and to what purpose that violence is put.

To be fair to Lenin, he himself doesn’t make explicit the sense in which he understands the relevant terms(is this fair?!). What makes me skeptical that he takes the more moderate/reactive position that I’ve been pushing for here is the fact that he constantly moves between speaking of the use of violence needed to overthrow the state and the kind of violence that is to be involved in the dictatorship of the proletariat without any qualification. The former, I take it, is clearly an active violence, aimed at overthrowing an oppressor–there’s little doubt about that. The latter, however, can have this reactive reading. If Lenin thought of the violence regarding the dictatorship of the proletariat in any other way than he thought of the violence needed to overthrow the state, then, presumably, he would have made that distinction. But he doesn’t, and the fact that the two kinds of violence seem the same for him, makes me uneasy.

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