Socialist Reading Series I: The State and Revolution [Part 3]

Alright, after a long delay, I’m back with chapter three of TSaR (you can find chapter two here). This chapter is especially important (especially sections 2 and 3). Let’s just jump back in.

Chapter III: The State and Revolution. Experience of the Paris Commune of 1871. Marx’s Analysis

  1. Wherein Lay the Heroism of the Communards’ Attempt?


According to Lenin, the revolutionary experience of the Paris Commune had a significant impact on Marx’s thinking insofar as it caused him to go back and make one important change to the Communist Manifesto. Specifically, he thought that what the Commune had shown was that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” (pg. 43 in Lenin, though the quote is originally from The Civil War in France and, as noted, appears in the Manifesto as well) Whereas some have held that this implies that Marx was urging for a more moderate position–i.e. the working class cannot simply lay hold of the state machinery because it must slowly come to take control of it–Lenin claims that the exact opposite is true:

Marx’s idea is that the working class must break up, smash the “ready-made state machinery,” and not confine itself merely to laying hold of it.

Lenin, The State and Revolution, Chapter 3 pg. 44

As evidence for this, Lenin cites Marx’s letter to Kugelmann on April 12, 1871 in which Marx says that “the next attempt of the French Revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it, and this is the preliminary condition for every real people’s revolution on the continent. And this is what our heroic Party comrades in Paris are attempting.” (pg. 44)

Lenin then makes two points in reflecting on this quote. First, that conditions have changed since ’71 such that Marx’s observations are no longer confined to conditions on the continent, but apply to England and the US as well. And second, that the the smashing of the state machinery is a precondition for a people’s revolution, with this showing that Marx was always concerned with a popular uprising rather than a parliamentary incrementalism of sorts.

In 1871, continues Lenin, the only popular revolution that could have succeeded was one that united both the proletariat and the peasantry since these classes were the ones that constituted “the people.” And these are, of course, precisely the groups that were oppressed by the state machinery and which are needed to smash that machinery. Consequently, Marx must have been saying two things. First, that in order for the revolution to succeed, the two classes that made up the people at the time must be united so as to destroy the state. And second, that he thought this was what the Communards were doing. What made the Communards’ attempt heroic, then, is precisely that they were trying to unite the two classes so as to destroy the state and lead a genuine people’s revolution.


The central argument here is really bad. Lenin’s claim is that the lesson that Marx learned from the Paris Commune is that the state machinery must be smashed. However, the evidence he uses to support this is something that Marx says in reference to the Eighteenth Brumaire (which was published in 1852) in a letter that Lenin himself acknowledges was written during the time of the Commune. The timing doesn’t make sense. Clearly, Marx couldn’t have learned the lesson from the Commune twenty years before it happened, but it also seems wrong to say that Marx could have drawn the lesson that Lenin claims he drew from it while the Commune was still happening. That’s not implausible, I suppose, since the developments in the early weeks of the Commune could have convinced Marx that something different has to happen. But if so, the quote Lenin uses doesn’t support that development. After all, the quote points back to what Marx already thought in the Eighteenth Brumaire and explicitly says that this–i.e. what he thought in 1852–is what the Communards were attempting to do in Paris.

If all this is correct, then this reflects Marx’s views from before the Commune, and not what he learned from the experience of its failure. Consequently, it doesn’t show Marx’s mature analysis at all even by Lenin’s own lights.

Setting that aside for a moment, the secondary point about what whether Marx thought that the Commune was in fact trying to form a coalition between the peasants and the workers may be correct. I don’t know enough about the Commune or, frankly, of Marx’s commentary on it to be able to weigh in. But there’s nothing at least in the text Lenin presents that makes this seem utterly implausible.

Still, this means very little if we return to the main reason why Lenin’s argument is bad. That is, what Lenin says may very well have been Marx’s analysis at the time of the Commune and he may have endorsed this union between peasants and workers that must smash the state as a pre-requisite of the revolution. But that’s perfectly compatible with the claim that, nevertheless, the Commune experience showed Marx that his analysis at the time was wrong and that this attempt was not the path towards a successful revolution after all. So far Lenin hasn’t shown us anything to think otherwise.

2. With What is the Smashed State Machine to be Replaced?


Before the Communards, the answer to this question was an abstract one: as we have seen the machine is to be replaced by “the proletariat organized as the ruling class…[by the] winning of the battle of democracy” (pg. 44). However, this does not provide a practical answer. According to Marx the practical answer, claims Lenin, is one that must be borne by experience. Thus, what kind of organization this must take and how exactly this battle of democracy is to be fought remained an open question.

Marx answer this question in his analysis of the Commune in The Civil War in France. Briefly, the Commune arises as a dialectical response to the state power that was developed and consolidated with the ’48 revolution. And what kind of “state” does it attempt form in light of the the features of the ’48 state?

First, it’s one that abolishes the standing army and substitutes in its place an armed people. It also appointed councilors on the basis of universal suffrage, who were representative of the working class and who could be recalled; it disbanded the existing police and handed over its responsibilities to commune members; it paid public servants working-class wages; it removed all the special privileges that came with government work; and it rejected the independence of the judiciary and made it accountable to the people (as all other positions were).

The smashed state was thus replaced by a more fully democratic set of institutions which, crucially, did not serve the function of the suppression of a political class. Consequently, the smashed state was replaced by something which was not a state (in the sense we have defined so far).

Nevertheless, the creation of this new body did not mean an end to suppression–the bourgeoisie still needed to be suppressed–but the source of that suppression was no longer a separate minority, but had now become the majority of the population. Given that the people itself–i.e. the majority–was doing the suppressing, the need for an extra, special force of suppression was lost. Consequently, the state had begun to wither away. In short, the state disappears as more and more of its functions (and especially its main function of suppression) are taken over by the general population instead of being held by a privileged minority.

Here, notes Lenin, the reduction of all wages to workingmen’s levels is of special importance and highlights the shift from a bourgeois democracy to a proletarian democracy. It is only through this process that the population returns to a kind of ‘primitive democracy’ in which the population itself can come to take up the functions of the state (presumably because a difference in remuneration would easily lead to a difference in rank and stature). This return is not, however, a return to an old pre-capitalist democracy–it is not a regression. Rather, it is a kind of dialectical return that takes advantage of the fact that the advances of capitalism has rendered all functions of the state so simple so as to make their execution possibly by any literate person.

By stripping all privilege from state work, removing all grandeur from such positions, and reducing the wages of those who perform them to the wages of ordinary people, a bridge from capitalism to socialism is built and the workers and the peasants are united.

Lenin ends the section on the following interesting note:

From the peasantry, as from other sections of the petty bourgeoisie, only an insignificant few “rise to the top,” “get on in the world” and in the bourgeois sense, i.e., become either well-to-do people, bourgeois, or officials in secure and privileged positions. In every capitalist country where there is a peasantry (as there is in most capitalist countries), the vast majority of the peasants are oppressed by the government and long for its overthrow, long for “cheap” government. This can be achieved only by the proletariat; and by achieving it, the proletariat at the same time takes a step towards the socialist reconstruction of the state.

Lenin, The State and Revolution pg. 53


The first part of this section–as many parts of the pamphlet–is focused on putting pressure on Lenin’s opponents in 1917. The general line of argument is this: Marx thought that the Commune was doing things the way scientific socialism demands they ought to be done. The commune did x, y, and z. Yet, the Mensheviks, SRs, and others refuse to do them and still they have the guts to call themselves Marxists!

This is fine, but not terribly interesting outside of a historical lens. More interesting, I think, are some of the comments that Lenin makes in the latter half of the section, and, in particular, in what he makes of the reduction of wages for all functionaries. There, he seems to make two substantial claims: first is the claim that capitalism has rendered the functions of the state so simple that only basic literacy is needed from its functionaries.

Capitalist culture has created large-scale production, factories, railways, the postal service, telephones, etc., and on this basis the great majority of the functions of the old “state power” have become so simplified and can be reduced to such exceedingly simple operations of registration, filing and checking that they can be easily performed by every literate person, can quite easily be performed for ordinary “workmen’s wages”…

Lenin, The State and Revolution, pg. 52

This is, to a certain extent, an empirical claim about the working conditions of the state (at the time at least) as well as a normative claim about what would justify a difference in remuneration for state functionaries. That is, because the the work being done is not any more complicated than the ordinary work of a factory worker, that it should be paid at the same rate. This is an interesting claim for two reasons. First, it describes what Lenin thought running the state would be like prior to taking power (at this point he’s still in Finland, and whatever power he has it’s only within the Bolshevik Party itself and not the state). Roughly, he sees management of the state as a matter of performing rote, repetitive clerical work–a kind of analogue to the work done by factory workers in an assembly line. I’m not sure if that is correct, or that it ever was correct. That’s not to say that government work isn’t rote, repetitive, or alienating–I’m sure it is–but rather that I suspect the skill necessary to fulfill government functions probably requires more than just basic literacy at least at some levels.

That being said, the current political administration seems to suggest that Lenin was closer to the truth than further from it–if Rick Perry can be Secretary of Energy…

The second thing that makes the claim interesting is the fact that it leaves open the possibility that if there are some government jobs for which more specialized skill is needed, then perhaps they should be paid higher wages for performing those tasks. This seems like a reasonable principle, but it poses a problem for Lenin and puts a lot more pressure on the empirical claim. Simply put, the withering of the state is contingent on the democratization of its functions. But if at least some of its functions cannot be democratized in some respects and if those functions require special skills and differing remuneration, then a core, privileged group is preserved, and hence, the possibility for a minor population wielding oppressive power remains. In that case, the state doesn’t wither but is granted a different life through the bureaucracy. (I would be remiss to say that something like this actually seems to have played out in the Soviet Union–Stalin worked his way up to power through exploiting the bureaucracy, after all)

One way of solving this problem might be to really stress the responsibility of the general population to recall people in positions should they begin to abuse their power. It’s not clear that this would be of any help since, as we saw earlier, the accumulation of excess wealth tends to have significant influence on others. Still, if the difference in wages is small, the possibility of such accumulation might be a small one.

A different way might be to reject the principle that Lenin seems to rely on and insist that more skilled work does not warrant higher than workmen’s wages. Most of us, having been brought up in capitalist culture, tend to bristle at that suggestion and inevitably see this as presenting a problem of motivation–why would I do more difficult work for the same pay as someone who does easier work? The obvious answer here is that the assumption that wages are the only thing that motivates someone to work is one of the greatest capitalist myths. The fact of the matter is that we are motivated by all sorts of things and frequently do all sorts of labor for little or no money at all (I put in quite a bit of effort in writing all this out and I promise you nobody pays me!). So, the picture that makes us bristle is much too simple and the real answer to the question that’s raised is a matter of figuring out what other ways people are motivated. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that all means of motivation are equally as effective in motivating people to do an adequate job (maybe I would write more often and more carefully if I were being paid to do this. Maybe…). But that’s a different matter. In any case, I don’t have the time to fully develop the practical elements of this suggestion–my only intention was to flag the fact that the problem that Lenin runs into might not be as unsolvable as it appears.

Let’s move on to the second interesting claim. That one’s another empirical one about the psychology of the peasant and how taking the measures that he and Marx propose will unite the peasantry and the working class and help build a bridge from capitalism. The line of argument, as you will recall, is that the peasant resents the government for oppressing it, and longs for its overthrow and replacement by a “cheap” government.

The word “cheap” is a tricky one as Lenin uses it. On the one hand, one can read the claim literally as saying that the peasantry is interested in a government that isn’t expensive or cost a lot. That might be plausible, especially if the oppression that one has in mind is an economic one. On this reading, the peasant wants to replace the current government with a ‘cheap’ one because doing so lessens their economic burden. On the other hand, however, one can read the claim as saying that the peasants are interested in a government that isn’t precious or entrenched. Here, ‘cheap’ is synonymous with ‘disposable’ and in contrast with ‘unique’. In this sense, what the peasant wants is a stripped down government that can be replaced easily. This, too, would lessen their economic burden but not because their primary source of oppression is, as it were, squeezed out of them to pay the salaries of expensive functionaries. Rather, it would be because a ‘cheap’ government is one that lacks a certain power to enforce certain oppressive measures that are employed against the peasants (i.e. the state doesn’t defend the interests of the landowners).

Both readings are, I think, consistent with the text, though I think the latter reading makes much more sense in the broader context. Nevertheless, it’s interesting how well Lenin’s description applies to the attitudes of the modern rural worker towards the government. I suspect this is because this is just a common feature of any populist urge, but it’s still pretty insightful.

3. Abolition of Parliamentarism


Naturally, Lenin once again begins by excoriating his contemporaries for not rejecting parliamentarism sufficiently. The essence of bourgeois parliamentarism (and of most democratic republics) is, according to Lenin (and Marx) to “decide every few years which member of the ruling class is to repress and crush the people through parliament” (pg. 54) This is what the Commune rejected and this is what Marx praised them for rejecting.

But how exactly are the proletariat to get rid of parliamentarism? Lenin tells us:

The way out of parliamentarism is not, of course, the abolition of representative institutions and the electoral principle, but the conversion of the representative institutions from talking shops into “working” bodies.

Lenin, The State and Revolution, pg. 55

But what does this mean? What does it mean to make turn representative bodies into working bodies? In the first place, it appears to be a matter of transparency–a working body does not obfuscate, its real workings are not “behind the scenes”, and its purpose is not to ‘trick’ the people. In the second place, it’s not concerned with or steeped in bureaucracy and red-tape but aims at doing work. And, finally, in the third place, it is a group in which there is no distinction between legislation and execution; in that respect, it is supposed to be modeled like a shop floor where the distinction between planning and doing is also abolished. [Note: I’m getting this reading by trying to suss out what’s between Lenin’s complaints against the SRs and Mensheviks].

Lenin also tempers our expectations. Our goal in ending parliamentarianism should not be to destroy all bureaucracy at once. That would be utopian. Rather, it is to so smash the old bureaucratic machine so that there can be a gradual end to all bureaucracy eventually. This will be possible for the same reason that it is possible to place all state functions in the hands of literate workers: namely, the advances of capitalism have made questions of organization simple enough to be handled without direct oversight.

Thus, the revolutionary state will not dispense with “workers, foremen, and bookkeepers,” but their employment will be at the hands of the proletariat as a whole rather than the state.

Lenin then gives us a nice description of how things will work:

We ourselves, the workers, will organize large-scale production on the basis of what capitalism has already created, relying on our own experience as workers, establishing strict, iron discipline supported by the state power of the armed workers; we will reduce the role of the state officials to that of simply carrying out our instructions as responsible, revocable, modestly paid “foremen and bookkeepers” (of course, with the aid of technicians of all sorts, types and degrees). This is our proletarian task, this is what we can and must start with in accomplishing the proletarian revolution.

Lenin, The State and Revolution, 58 (emphasis in original)

Here, Lenin is describing the notion of collective central planning, guided by the experience of the proletariat, safeguarded by the armed workers, and the orders of which are executed by particular functionaries.

But crucially, this stage, too, is only transitional. As organizational and accounting functions become simpler and simpler with the help of technology, they will become so simple and internalized that there will be no more need for any kind of special functionaries at all. Everyone will simply know what needs to be done and how to do it.

The seeds of this kind of set up are, according to Lenin, already in the soil. We have already seen how such a central planned system can work in one place with the postal service as a kind of state capitalist enterprise. As imperialism continues unabated, it will transform all organizations similarly–at that point, the only thing that’s needed is for the proletariat to take control through arm, keep it for long enough that knowledge can be diffused and internalized as specified, and wait for the withering away of state and bureaucracy.


I’ll note two very important things that finally let me make sense of Lenin’s thoughts. First, it’s puzzling what Lenin exactly means when he says that we must smash the bureaucratic machine without abolishing it. The answer, we know, has to be that the smashing just is the transformation of the existing parliamentary bodies into these working bodies. But how is smashing something compatible with transforming it? Usually, when we talk about the smashing of something, we imply its destruction (“smash the patriarchy!” means “get rid of the patriarchy!” not “transform the patriarchy!”), but Lenin is explicit that smashing of the state or the bureaucracy is not tantamount to immediately getting rid of either. To advocate for the latter is to take the anarchist position, and Lenin is no anarchist. If that’s so, then it might be fair to say that ‘smash’ is a kind of technical term for Lenin. What does it mean to smash x? Plausibly, it’s to de-fang, transform, or remove the primary function of x. To smash the state is to deprive it of its primary function of suppressing class conflict in favor of the bourgeoisie, and to smash parliamentarism is to deprive it of its primary function of lying to the people. In both cases, the thing that has been smashed may continue to have a different, perhaps necessary for the time, function, but it does not exist in the same way that it did previously.

The second thing to note is that, once again, Lenin exposes certain fundamental assumptions he holds about the role of technology and the nature of bureaucracy. Namely, he thinks that as technology improves, the knowledge necessary for bureaucratic and organizational tasks become simpler. Furthermore, this trend doesn’t bottom out! Bureaucratic tasks can become so simple that they can be internalized by everyone and made intuitive to everyone.

To reiterate, this is a substantial empirical claim. Lenin holds that this empirical claim is actually confirmed by the development of capitalism under imperialism and the post office is supposed to be just one example in which the bureaucracy has been appropriately simplified. Lenin seems to be committed to the further claim that all enterprises will develop in this way.

Putting aside the question of whether Lenin was right about these claims about the nature of bureaucracy (he wasn’t), noting them can help us make sense of why, for example, Lenin saw the revolution as so urgent. If the technology is already in place to make social organization and bureaucracy a non-issue in a fully egalitarian and fully democratized society (i.e. if there’s no need for specialized oversight), and if the only thing that’s standing in the way of that reality is only the obstinacy of the ruling class who refuse to give up power, then it makes perfect sense to take up arms against them!

This line of reasoning holds even if the technology isn’t quite there (as it definitely was not in 1917 Russia)! If we’ve already got enough evidence to believe that this is precisely what will happen everywhere, then it also makes sense to take up arms anyway and maintain power until the technology catches up. In other words, even if Russia is currently technologically behind, if the proletariat can come to power and maintain order until it catches up to other industrialized countries, then it can still reach socialism without first going through a bourgeois development. What’s necessary for that, however, is, precisely as Lenin says, a dictatorship of the proletariat that prevents any backsliding into bourgeois tendencies.

Furthermore, this explains why Lenin thought that a revolution in Russia would spread quickly to Europe and why it was so important that it do so. Given the assumptions that he holds, it seems plausible that Lenin thought that the technological material conditions for socialism were already in place in Germany, and that the only (well, perhaps not only) thing keeping socialism from occurring was the masses’ reluctance to take up arms and seize the means of production. In other words, I suspect he thought that industrialized Europe was already in this latest stage (or close to it) of capitalism mentioned earlier in which the knowledge of bureaucratic and organizational tasks was so simple that it no longer posed a challenge. If that’s the case, then seeing that a popular revolution could succeed even in a place where that isn’t the case would give the population enough of an impetus to do their own revolution. In turn, if successful, this fully developed industrial power would require only the shortest time before its state withers away, and would then be able to send material and technological aid back to Russia, thus shortening the time it needs to catch up.

Of course, none of that turned out to be true, but man, does it make things a lot easier to understand.

4. Organization of the Unity of the Nation


This brief section begins with a few block quotes from Marx about how the nation is to be organized on the model of the Commune. Simply put, the form of the Commune would be applied from the smallest settlement up through the entire nation. On this model, the unity of the nation “was not to be broken, but, on the contrary, to be organized by the Communal Constitution, and to become a reality by the destruction of the State power which claimed to be the embodiment of that unity independent of, and superior to, the nation itself from which it was but a parasitic excrescence.” (Lenin quoting Marx)

The purpose for quoting Marx here becomes apparent when Lenin begins to attack Bernstein. Briefly, the question under discussion is whether Marx’s analysis of the Commune commits him to federalism at the national level. Bernstein claims that it does and that, in fact, Marx’s views on national organization end up being essentially the same as those of the anarchist Proudhon. In turn, Bernstein takes his criticisms against Proudhon to apply to Marx as well. Lenin argues that Bernstein is, of course, mistaken–the excision of a parasitic state is in no way similar to any system of federalism. “Marx does not speak here at all about federalism as opposed to centralism, but about smashing the old, bourgeois state machine which exists in all bourgeois countries.” (Lenin, pg 61)

On the heels of some more lambasting of Kautsky and Plehanov (other ideological enemies of Lenin), we get an explanation of what unites and separates Marx from Proudhon on this question. Namely, the two agree on the need to smash the state, but they disagree precisely on the question of federalism and centralism–Proudhon was a federalist, and Marx was a centralist (as proven by the quotes Lenin references at the beginning of the section). He explains:

But if the proletariat and the poorest peasantry take state power into their own hands, organize themselves quite freely in communes, and unite the action of all the communes in striking at capital, in crushing the resistance of the capitalists, and in transferring the privately-owned railways, factories, land and so forth to the entire nation, to the whole of society–will that not be centralism? Will that not be the most consistent democratic centralism? And proletarian centralism at that?

Lenin, The State and Revolution, 63

And closes out with some more insults against the opportunists.


Not having read Proudhon, it’s possible that I’m missing something very important here. The biggest hurdle I have is in understanding how exactly Marx’s comments commit him to a centralism. Here’s my best take.

We know that even the smallest hamlet will be organized in the same way as the Commune. On the one hand, this might mean that each of the independent (little ‘c’) communes will have absolute autonomy from every other commune in what they do and will only nominally be organized in some kind of nation. This, I take it, would be federalism. On the other hand, this might mean that although each hamlet, village, and town are organized on the commune model (all the way up to the top), they will also be united by one central, overarching goal. This, I take it, would be centralism.

The difference, then, is between what the obligations of the communes are to each other. On the federalist view, obligations stop at the something like the municipal level and what the commune does, it does for itself. On the centralist view, the obligations of the commune extend to the whole nation such that different communes might work together not because it is for the benefit of the individual commune, but because it is for the benefit of the entire nation.

This point can be made more clear if we once again remember that Lenin’s use of “smash” is a technical one. He tells us that both Marx and Proudhon agree that the state must be smashed, but whereas the anarchist thinks of this smashing as an abolition and destruction of the state which leaves nothing but individual autonomous communities, the Leninist (Marxist?) sense preserves the overarching unifying structure of the state while removing its previous oppressive function. Thus, unity is preserved among all the communes and their relation to one another remains centralized much as it was before under the bourgeois state. Crucially, what’s changed is the fact that the state no longer functions as a tool of oppression, but is, at best, only temporarily in place until all its functions can be internalized by the workers.

5. Abolition of the Parasite State


This very short section, again, opens with some long quotes form Marx which are supposed to supplement the remarks from section 4. Briefly put, the quotes focus on how the organization of the Commune and the Communal Constitution should not be confused with any older counterparts: for example, the Commune is not pushing for a return to any kind of feudal communal organization. What it does, instead, is remove the parasite state which has been feeding on the social body and holding back society.

This, according to Lenin, is one of Marx’s notable discoveries: what made the Commune special was the fact that “it was essentially a working-class government, the produce of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labour.” (Lenin quoting Marx, pg. 65)

While everyone else (the anarchists, utopians, Social-Democrats, etc.) were busy doing all sorts of useless things, Marx was deducing what would come next based on what had already happened in France and what had been discovered by the Commune in their experiment. Namely, that the state machinery needs to be smashed and that what would replace the smashed state machinery needs to be a centralized state on the principles of the Commune.


I have relatively little to add to this section in terms of analysis. It serves, I suppose, to only highlight once again, the absolute faith that Lenin has in the truth of Marxism and in the methodology of historical materialism to predict the future. Almost all of Lenin’s criticisms against his contemporaries are in their vulgarization and misreading of Marx, but, as I’ve stated multiple times in the past, these criticisms only have any weight if Marx is right about how to read the tea leaves and has unqualified access to the truth.

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