Socialist Reading Series I: The State and Revolution [Part 5]

We’re almost through with this one! Here we go…

Chapter V: The Economic Basis of the Withering Away of the State

Lenin working hard at his West Wing fan fiction
  1. Presentation of the Question by Marx


Lenin begins my noting that Marx sometime speaks of the “future nature of the state of communist society” which has made some people think that, unlike Engels, he believes that there will be a future communist state. According to Lenin this isn’t the case and Marx and Engels have precisely the same view on how the state will wither away after the revolution. The only difference between the two authors is that Engels was interested in directly showing Bebel that he shouldn’t be concerned with the state at all and thus addressed the question regarding the state directly. Marx, on the other hand, was more interested in the question about how the future communist society would develop, and, as a result, only makes passing remarks on the withering away of the state.

Thus, Lenin turns to how Marx attempts to answer that question. There, we learn two things. First, we learn that the answer will be one that’s rooted in scientific facts and reasoning (and hence it will not be utopian). Since that’s the case, and since we can’t study future subjects scientifically, we can only make inferences on the basis of what we can study scientifically in the moment. More specifically, we know that it’s capitalism that gives birth to Communism, so we can infer some claims about what the future will be on the basis of what we know through our study of the present.

In turn, what we know currently is that what all modern-day capitalist states have in common is that they’re all based on modern bourgeois society. Since the future of communism depends on what things will be like once that society is dead, the question becomes one of “what transformation will the state undergo in communist society? In other words, what social functions will remain in existence that are analogous to present function of the state?” (Lenin quoting Marx, 102).

Crucially, for Lenin this signifies that Marx is committed to the necessity of a period of transition from capitalism (the bourgeois society) to communism (the post-bourgeois society). The importance of this claim is not specified here.


If I haven’t made it clear before, I find Lenin to be a pretty irritating writer. This is one of the times in which I find it very difficult to work out what he’s trying to get at and how he thinks that what he’s written is making the point he wants to make.

Given how the section opens, Lenin’s overarching goal must be to demonstrate that Engels and Marx were in lock-step regarding the role of the state and that both of them believed in a the “withering” hypothesis. That much is clear. It’s also clear that Lenin thinks that Marx’s commitment to this hypothesis has to be read between the lines of what he says regarding the transition period between capitalism and communism. The answer will be an indirect one that will be provided on an examination of this question.

However, what we see is, as noted, a section about how this answer must be given scientifically (which is all well and good, but granting that doesn’t add to anything like an argument), and that the existence of a Communist future entails an end to the current bourgeois state. And neither one of these things is sufficient to show the overarching goal that Lenin sets up before.

The most reasonable suggestion seems to be that a recognition of the fact that Communism comes after the death of bourgeois society is tantamount to a recognition of a transition period. Why recognizing a transition period is improtant isn’t clera yet, but the point is at least sensible (though, it seems to me that it shouldn’t be overstated). If a caterpillar has transformed into a butterfly, then there must have been some transition period between caterpillarhood and butterflydom; i.e. the chrysalis stage. More generally, it seems true that for any x that becomes a y, there is some time during which x is becoming y that can count as its transition period. This holds even when we’re talking about crossing the border between two countries (the transition period there is just the time it takes for you to cross the particular checkpoint or imaginary border that separates the two countries) as well as transformations of society. If society x is to become society y, then there has to be some time z that counts as the transition period between x and y.

Perhaps in light of this Marx’s remarks are to be read as follows: don’t ask me about the future of Communism–I can’t tell you about that. The only thing that I can tell you is that between the present and that time there will be some transition time and given that this is the case, I can tell you some things about what that transition time will be like because I can at least work that out on what I know scientifically about the present state of affairs from which this transition period is to be born. And I answer that question scientifically by looking at what state functions are currently in place, and which ones will come to be unnecessary.

This, too, is fine, but, again, it remains puzzling why Lenin sees it as showing that Marx and Engels were in agreement about the withering away of the state.

Arguably, Lenin’s argument would be complete if he can show that Marx thought that transition period just would be what Engels describes as the withering away of the state. However, this hasn’t been shown yet! In other words, Lenin seems to have only set up the question by establishing that Marx makes room for a transition state. But noting that as a matter of conceptual necessity there will be some transition period tells us nothing about what that transition period will be like. Consequently, we can’t possibly think that Marx and Engels are in agreement just yet.

So, perhaps that piece of the argument is forthcoming…hopefully.

Apart from that, there’s something odd about the way Lenin describes Marx’s reasoning. Namely, it’s not at all clear to me that the way to figure out what the transition period will be like for a transition from x to y is a matter of figuring out what functions of x remain in existence. Consider the following (I hope) analogous example to the quote from Marx: it is clear that there is a difference between my being alive and my being dead and that, consequently, there must be some period between the two in which I go from being alive to being dead. Let’s call that period ‘dying’. Should we then say “The question then arises: what transformation will the body undergo in death? In other words, what bodily functions will remain in existence that there are analogous to present functions of the living body?” Is this how we learn about dying? Maybe, but it seems like a bizarre way of looking at the matter. The same can be applied for the transformation from caterpillar to butterfly–one doesn’t look at what functions of the caterpillar are preserved in the cocoon to understand the chrysalis!

I can make some sense of this by noting that one might reasonably make some inferences about what must be going on with the chrysalis if one knew what features the caterpillar has, what features the butterfly has, and then by inferring what it must take for that transformation to happen (thus, one might reason that the transition period is one in which wings are grown). So maybe this is what’s going on: we know that currently we have states based on bourgeois society and we know that in the future there will be no bourgeois society. Thus, we infer about what it would take for bourgeois society to be removed. But it’s still not at all clear to me that we learn about this by looking at what functions of the present state are retained and which ones are removed. Rather, what that approach does at best is give us some constraints about what kind of speculations we’ll allow (though these constraints will be loose! Perhaps the state becomes superpowered and then votes its way out of existence! Perhaps all people who know about the state are zoomed away by aliens! Perhaps there’s a withering away… and so on). In any case, I don’t feel I have a good grasp of things here and Lenin isn’t making it easier for me.

He really does look quite a lot like Leonardo di Caprio here

2. The Transition from Capitalism to Communism


The second begins with an important quote from Marx regarding this transition period:

Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. There corresponds to this also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.

Lenin quoting Marx, The State and Revolution, 102

[Note: this quote is from Marx’s critique of the Gotha Program]

Lenin claims this remark is the conclusion of a scientific analysis based on observations applying to current society and that the claim itself is an acknowledgement that there must necessarily be a political transition period without which the achievement of Communism would be impossible. The purpose of the state during that period can only be that of the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.

The question, then, becomes what the relation of the proletariat in this dictatorship role is to democracy. The answer is laid out in the Communist Manifesto: “to raise the proletariat to the position of the ruling class…to win the battle of democracy.” (103) In practice, this means a decisive rejection of the kind of democracy-in-name-only that exists in capitalism. In order to win the battle of democracy, capitalist democracy must be rejected.

Crucially, for Lenin this doesn’t mean a kind of simple lifting of restrictions so that we get “greater and greater democracy”. Rather, it means precisely instituting the dictatorship of the proletariat. Why? Because–and here I quote in full:

the resistance of the capitalist exploiters cannot be broken by anyone else or in any other way. And the dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e., the organization of the vanguard of the oppressed as the ruling class for the purpose of suppressing the oppressors, cannot result merely in an expansion of democracy. Simultaneously with an immense expansion of democracy, which for the first time becomes democracy for the poor, democracy for the people, and not democracy for the moneybags, the dictatorship of the proletariat imposes a series of restrictions on the freedom of the oppressors, the exploiters, the capitalists. We must suppress them in order to free humanity from wage slavery, their resistance must be crushed by force; it is clear that where there is suppression, where there is violence, there is no freedom and no democracy.

Lenin, The State and Revolution, 105

In short, there can be no straightforward expansion of democracy because if the revolution is to be successful, there must be active restriction of democracy for some (the bourgeoisie) and an active expansion for others (the proletariat). And if there’s not a kind of uniform expansion then we really are talking about a kind of dictatorship in which some people gain some rights and others have theirs taken away.

This is what happens to democracy in the transition period. The ‘bad’ democracy of the few under capitalism will be smashed and a ‘new’ democracy of the people will be introduced.

When this transition period is complete and full Communism has arrived we get the wonderful picture of true, unrestrained democracy without exception. At that point the state will wither “owing to the simple fact that, freed from capitalist slavery, from the untold horrors, savagery, absurdities and infamies of capitalist exploitation, people will gradually become accustomed to observing the elementary rules of social intercourse…without force, without compulsion, without subordination, without the special apparatus for compulsion which is called the state.” (106)

Before that can happen–indeed, so that that can happen–oppression of some groups (viz. the bourgeoisie) is still necessary. And hence, a state as a machine of oppression is necessary as well. But once the transition period in which this necessity remains is over–once all class differences have been destroyed–that necessity no longer holds, and the state disappears.

Interestingly, this machine, when taken in the hands of the majority will not be a complex one. Much complexity is needed to keep the majority suppressed by a minority, but very little is needed to keep a minority suppressed by the majority. In fact, it’s so simple that nothing more than a mass arming of the organized proletariat.

Lenin ends this section by noting that he’s not a utopian and he knows that the arrival of communism does not mean that there won’t be individual excesses or violations of social norms. In short, Communism won’t solve every conflict. But Lenin does think that the problems that remain will not be such as to require the complex specialization of a state.


Lenin is moving too quickly at the beginning. He is using the quote from Marx to argue that achieving communism is impossible without a dictatorship of the proletariat, but nothing so strong as a necessity claim can be immediately read from that quote. How does he get to there? The answer seems to be that the necessity claim must rest in the correspondence between the social and political revolutions. Simply put, if the social revolution necessarily requires some transition period, and if that social transition period necessarily comes with an accompanying corresponding political transition period, then there’s a necessary political transition period as well.

I suspect that Lenin is also trading on the assumption that the corresponding transition periods must occur concurrently. That is, the correspondence that he’s speaking of isn’t one of correlation but of simultaneity (or something close to simultaneity): the social revolution occurs and its completion requires an accompanying political revolution with its own transition period.

But it’s not clear why this is the case. One could imagine a social transition period that comes about with a corresponding political transition period which follows it (or precedes it) rather than occurring concurrently with it. In such a scenario, the social revolution occurs first, and then the political one happens. But if such a temporal split can happen, then it seems possible for capitalist society to transition to a Communist society with a bourgeois state, and then institute a dictatorship of the proletariat with regards to the state during that transition period. This possibility is consistent with Marx’s quote (though I’m skeptical it’s what Marx meant), but it is clearly inconsistent with what Lenin is pushing at. For Lenin’s purposes, it seems that the two transition periods must occur at the same time such that the social revolution demands the institution of a political revolution of a certain kind.

The argument for this, as we see, has to do with the claims we’ve seen made earlier (and later in the section) about the function of the state. In short, if the function of the bourgeois state is to wage class warfare on the side of the bourgeoisie and if the social revolution cannot succeed so long as the state has this function, then the success of the social revolution itself requires a political revolution–i.e. a smashing of the state.

I also want to make note of Lenin’s remark at the end of the long quote above. Crucially, part of why there can’t just be an unqualified expansion of democracy is because there are a certain group of people (the capitalists) who must be suppressed in this transition period. And if there’s a suppression of that group, then there is no democracy for that group. But it is precisely that group that was holding the reigns of the existing democratic process. In other words, there can’t be a pure expansion of democracy because it’s necessary that we actually restrict the democracy of those who were in charge; we’re not merely granting the privileges that they had to others, but are actively stripping those privileges from some and giving them to the poor. That, of course, is a dictatorship and that is precisely the change that democracy undergoes in the transition period.

I made a big deal of stressing both of these points here because they both lead us back to the familiar fact that so much of Lenin’s arguments ultimately boil down to certain commitments about the nature of the state. Why is a dictatorship of the proletariat necessary? Because without it the state remains a tool of oppression. Why must the dictatorship of the proletariat occur concurrently with (rather than following) the social revolution? Because without it the state as a tool of oppression will roll back on the social revolution. Seemingly every road points back to a fundamental commitment to the state as a monolithic entity with a singular purpose: to oppress the working classes for the benefit of the bourgeoisie. This is something tantamount to conceptual bedrock for Lenin and most of his arguments succeed or fail depending on whether or not the claim is true.

Third, the end of the section gives us yet another insight into Lenin’s view of psychology, sociology, and history. Unsurprisingly, his remarks seem to suggest that he thinks the complexities of modernity are primarily due to class antagonisms. The picture he paints is of people who naturally know how to get along and who can live together simply on the basis of simple, clearly observable and clearly learn-able standards. Conflicts arise even under these conditions, but there’s a kind of simplicity to life in those settings that renders those conflicts easy to handle. It is only with the introduction of classes, oppression, and the specialized systems and tools necessary to oppress that social life becomes so difficult. Lenin seems to be completely convinced that should these complicating factors be removed, the simplicity of life will return. And here we might be skeptical…(aside: Nietzsche thought that the introduction of Christian introspection made life both more interesting and also ruined a lot of really good stuff, but he was under no illusion that getting rid of Christianity would get rid of our new skill of introspection. That bell can’t be un-rung. As a result, he thought we needed a radical, bold, creative new value system and not a return to the Greeks. There’s no retreat to the past here–not so, it appears, for Lenin…)

Finally, it’s worth noting that there’s still a hole left in the argument. Recall, we were anticipating that the transition period that Marx is concerned with will be precisely the transition period that Engels refers to with respect to the withering of the state. However, we now find out that the withering of the state only occurs after the transition period of the dictatorship of the proletariat. So, it’s still not clear that Marx and Engels are precisely in agreement. That being said, this might seem to be a minor point if we grant that they both eventually come to think that there’s going to be some period in time during which the withering of the state occurs. I’m not sure where I land on that primarily because Lenin is really sparing with quotes from Marx about the state withering away (he returns to Engels at this point) and the quote he starts the section with only talks about the necessity of a dictatorship of the proletariat–that dictatorship may be necessary even if the state doesn’t wither away!

“What am I even doing here? I could be at home playing Call of Duty…”

3. The First Phase of Communist Society


Because the initial Communist society will be one that has grown out of capitalism it will initially be marked in its first stage by the characteristics of the society that produced it. It will, as Marx puts it, bear the birthmarks of capitalism. This is the first, lower stage of communism.

During this stage the means of production will not be in the hands of individuals as private property but will instead be owned collectively by society. The remuneration for each worker will be allotted by a kind of public certificate of work that specifies how much socially-necessary labor an individual has performed. In turn, these certificates can be exchanged for an appropriate quantity of goods from a public store of goods with some amount of labor subtracted for the maintenance of social services and the means of production.

(What Lenin is describing here is virtually like the kind of paper money we use every day with the exception that its value is fixed by labor value rather than by demand of treasury notes, foreign exchange reserves, or exchange rates. I leave it to the economists to figure out if this is at all possible)

Such a society might look like an equitable one (after all, everyone will be given an amount of ‘money’ equal to the amount of labor they put in), but Lenin and Marx disagree for the simple reason that an equal share of a good for people in unequal circumstances doesn’t make for equity. Different people have different needs and different abilities–if I have kids and put in as much work as you who don’t have kids and we both get the same share for the same amount of work, then you in fact get more than I.

This first stage of Communism will still preserve the unjust differences in wealth and, in that respect, will still carry with it the marks of injustice it inherits from its capitalist parent. However, what will be different is that exploitation by individuals will be impossible “because it will be impossible to seize the means of production, the factories, machines, land, etc. as private property.” (111). Full justice will not yet be in place, but the injustice of exploitation will have been eliminated even at this early stage.

Thus, Marx is under no impression that the mere fact that the means of production are in the hands of the proletariat will somehow change all the ways in which people are unequal. Even more importantly, it will not remove “the defects of distribution and the inequality of ‘bourgeois right’ which continues to prevail as long as products are divided ‘according to the amount of labor performed.'” (112)

In other words, the most important thing that happens during this stage is that the products of social labor are not allotted to private individuals (as is the rule under capitalism) but to society as a whole. That part of the ‘bourgeois right’ disappears. However, “it continues to exist in the capacity of regulator (determining factor) in the distribution of products and the allotment of labor among the members of society.” (112)

Notably, for Marx and Lenin this is a defect–things should not be like this–but it’s entirely utopian to think that people can go from having a standard of allotment to absolutely no such standard overnight. Living in this latter way must be learned and the means to do so must be created by the people who have already overthrown the capitalist system. Until that happens, the only standard remains that of the bourgeois.

Crucially, during this stage there is still a partial need for a state. Its role here is to both safeguard the public ownership of the means of production (i.e. make sure that no capitalist sneaks back in!) and to make sure that there’s the kind of equality in labor and distribution talked about here (the imperfect kind). However, insofar as there are no classes in this society, the state will no longer have the function of suppressing any classes, and, consequently, that function will no longer be in play.


I rather like this section quite a bit precisely because it refuses to be utopian. Lenin makes it explicit that the expropriation of the means of production is not a panacea for all of society’s ills and that nobody should expect that. Indeed, Lenin’s claims might strike the reader as too modest since the only thing that the seizing of the means of production does is to eliminate the injustice of the exploitation of labor while still preserving some of the other injustices in place.

Of course, in the Marxian framework, it’s just not true that this is modest since it’s precisely class differences and exploitation that cause the intractable social problems throughout history. So, the elimination of the exploitation of labor would do quite a lot!

However, one might still wonder if it would be enough. Consider, for example, that according to Lenin one of the reasons the Communards instituted equal remuneration for all state functionaries was to curb the prestige of such jobs and the ability to leverage that prestige into special privileges that divide society. Now, as long as all such privileges are indeed garnered through one’s salary, then making everyone’s wages equal will, indeed, curb them. However, as Lenin himself says, this isn’t the case and individual differences between different people can have significant downstream effects. If the equal salary that I get for the same amount of work that you get goes only towards supporting me while yours goes towards supporting you and your children, then my salary has more purchasing power since my expenses are less than yours. Consequently, given our initial assumption about how privilege is obtained, the problematic social divisions will continue.

Now, as stated, Lenin acknowledges that this will exist in general, so he’s not ignorant of the phenomenon. This is just part of how the revolution plays out. Nevertheless, he faces a problem insofar as that phenomenon can also appear within the (smashed) state. If it appears there–if the social privileges are either preserved or begin to accumulate within the state, then we’re in trouble. And, as I’ve brought this up before, this is precisely how Stalin worked his way into power by granting special powers and privileges to the bureaucracy.

The problem becomes even bigger if this initial transition period is an indefinite one (as Lenin indeed acknowledges it must be–see the next section). What we have in that situation is…well, an indefinite dictatorship of state functionaries…

Sometimes history makes me sad.


4. The Higher Phase of Communist Society


The higher phase of Communism is marked in the first place by the disappearance of the distinction between mental and physical labor. When that distinction disappears so does the accompanying source of social inequality that treats intellectual labor as more prestigious than physical labor. This distinction, notes Lenin, cannot be removed by mere expropriation of the means of production.

Rather, that expropriation will allow the productive forces to be fully unleashed. Under capitalism these forces are constrained since, presumably, they are not put forward to producing those goods that are socially necessary, but are put forward to producing those goods that are profitable. If this constraint is not in place, then the productive forces of humanity will come to open up all sorts of new possibilities. Crucially, however, the details of just how everything is to come into place are not something that we can know a priori.

But how rapidly this development will proceed, how soon it will reach the point of breaking away from the division of labor, of doing away with the antithesis between mental and physical labor, of transforming labor into “the prime necessity of life”–we do not and cannot know.

Lenin, The State and Revolution, pg. 114

The only thing we know is that the state will fully wither away only when people can truly live according to the old maxim “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” and only when “their labor becomes so productive that they will voluntarily work according to their ability.” (115) At that point it won’t be necessary to keep close accounting track of just how much someone has worked more than someone else since everyone will be able to receive everything that they need.

The bourgeois have called this view of the future utopian and have argued that because one can’t give an explanation of how this latter stage will be put into practice, there should be no move away from capitalism into the first stage of Communism. But this is, according to Lenin, is just ignorance since no socialist has ever “promised” that this latter stage of Communism would arrive with them. And those who have spoken of it were not basing their foresight on the basis of the current conditions and on the current population but simply laying out the black-boxed future conditions that will develop under the first stage of Communism. Thus the charge that the Bolsheviks political plan is useless because they can’t introduce the fully developed communist future into the present is thus not a fair one–it’s simply not the kind of thing that can be introduced at all given the current material conditions!

Thus, we can (scientifically) distinguish between socialism on the one hand–that first stage of communism–from Communism proper (the later stage). On the basis of this distinction we can also say that under socialism there will still be a need for a kind of state since during this stage, as discussed, the ‘bourgeois right’ of the distribution of goods on the basis of labor still remains and the state is still needed to enforce and administer those goods. This, again, is because Socialism grows out of and is marked by the capitalist womb from which it emerges.

The question then becomes what happens to the state during this first stage. Democracy remains and so does a smashed state machinery, now transformed and made more democratic in the hands of the armed masses of the workers. In that stage every person engages in the management and administration of the state and every person can do this (as we have seen before) because capitalism itself has made administration of all bureaucratic functions incredibly easy.

What was said in section three is restated: the goal of this still-functioning armed worker’s state is control of the distribution of goods and the accounting of labor that makes that control equal. Here, Lenin gives us a more detailed picture of what that would look like:

Accounting and control–that is the main thing required for “arranging” the smooth working, the correct functioning of the first phase of communist society. All citizens are transformed here into hired employees of the state, which consists of the armed workers. All citizens become employees and workers of a single nationwide state “syndicate.” All that is required is that they should work equally, do their proper share of work, and get equally paid. The accounting and control necessary for this have been simplified by capitalism to the extreme and reduced to the extraordinarily simple operations — which any literate person can perform — of supervising and recording, knowledge of the four rules of arithmetic, and issuing appropriate receipts.

Lenin, The State and Revolution, 120-121

The practical goal here is to see that “the whole of society will have become a single office and a single factory, with equality of labor and equality of pay.” (121) Once this has been achieved and there’s been sufficient control to make sure that the gentry and the capitalists can’t sneak back in and ruin things, the need for government will disappear. And once that happens, once everyone has internalized the management of the state and has gotten used to living a certain way, the door will be open to the higher stage of communism.


Most of what Lenin says here is repetition of what has been said before. Lenin doesn’t really talk about the higher stage of communism as much as he does about the first stage (i.e. Socialism) and we’ve already gotten a taste of what that’s supposed to be like from the third section. Likewise, we’ve already been tracking the fact that Lenin has some interesting presuppositions about epistemology and human psychology with respect to how the socialist future is supposed to come about. I won’t talk about them here again.

What I do want to note, however, are two other things that struck me as interesting. In the first place is an interesting parallel between the way Lenin sees the development of communism and what David Hume says about justice. Paraphrasing Hume, there would be no need for any convention of justice in a world in which there is no scarcity for necessary material goods or in which there’s an unlimited benevolence from individuals. In either a world of plenty or a world of infinite benevolence, we have no need for justice since its conventions are appealed to only to settle questions of private property and the fruits thereof. If there were enough of everything to go around for everyone, then it wouldn’t matter if you got this particular bushel of corn, or that coat instead of me–I would just get some different corn and a different coat from the pile of plenty. Likewise, even if there were scarcity, but every individual were infinitely benevolent and wasn’t thinking about how to maintain one’s welfare for the future, then we could figure out how to ration the scarce goods among us so that nobody starves or goes without clothing.

Many casual (vulgar even!) critics of communism accuse it of being too idealistic because they assume it needs something like the latter view of infinite benevolence. That is, they assume that communism requires that people be more concerned about the welfare of others than their own–that, in short, they become much, much more benevolent than they really are. But it’s clear from what is said here that, if anything, Lenin is much more committed to the former proposition and that, in fact, he thinks that (if not in the present, then in the near future) the productive technological advances employed by capitalism will indeed provide us with a world in which there is no scarcity. This is the world under high communism in which everyone can give and take whatever they need to the extent that they’re capable and this is the final version that Communists are striving for.

I suspect most people are inclined to think that this, too, is a kind of utopian fantasy, but it seems to me that there’s something to be said in its favor when we start to consider that modern farming practices are advanced enough to feed the whole world. One also can’t help but wonder how many resources are spent on different kinds of fighter planes and military adventures that could have been put forward towards other social needs. I don’t know where I stand on this. It’s incredibly easy to find examples of capitalist excesses, but it’s not like central planning was proven to be the most efficient system of distributing goods…

The second interesting thing has to do with Lenin’s reluctance to commit to any specifics about the distant future of communism. On the one hand, I think this is a good thing. One of the things that I find to be of most value in Lenin’s thought is the stress that there are, indeed, very large unknowns looming in the future, that these unknowns cannot be established a priori, and that, at best, settling them is nothing more than pure speculation. On the other hand, I find it somewhat frustrating since the theory of history that Lenin is constantly pushing is one that seems to claim very strongly that the future can be read by understanding how history unfolds. So much of the pamphlet is focused on stressing the importance of a proper “scientific” analysis of history that when we get to this point the fact that nothing can really substantive can be said past a general view of what Socialism will be like seems a bit ad hoc.

I think regardless of where we settle on this, there’s still something interesting in the offing. Suppose for a moment that Lenin is right and that we can’t know anything about what the future of Communism is like and that the best we can do is give a sketch of the first stage of Socialism. What follows from that? The important thing here to note, I think, is that in that case we would still have to make a judgment about how we should live: should we remain in a system that we know but which we recognize as exploitative and which feeds on the misery of the workers and the blood of imperial subjects? Or should we fight for a different system that we have to build ourselves?

This, I think, is what Lenin is frustrated with when he says that “the mercenary defense of capitalism by the bourgeois ideologists (and their hangers-on, like Messrs. the Tseretelis, Chernovs, and Co.) consists precisely in that they substitute controversies and discussion about the distant future for the vital and burning question of present-day politics, viz., the expropriation of the capitalists…” (116). In short, he’s frustrated that the unknown nature of the future of Communism is used as grounds to preserve the current order. The “bourgeois ideologists” imply that if the opposition can’t produce a clear, controversy-free vision of the ultimate goal, then the current order should be preserved. Which is tantamount to endorsing a conservative line. And of those who say they don’t want to preserve the current order–if they do indeed believe in Marxism and the tenets of Marxism–then the specifics of what the Communist future holds should have no bearing on whether or not action is needed now.

It’s important to note that this argument does not generalize. Given certain situations it’s absolutely vital that you know what the end result is like and how you plan to get there before you sign on to a particular course of action. It’s not enough for me to say “listen, if you give me all your life savings now I’ll make sure good things happen for you–I can’t explain how cause a lot of it’s gonna depend on what I come to figure out once I get your money, but you should trust me on this.” If I’m going to convince you to get on board I better have something more to say.

The cases for which the argument does work is precisely those cases in which you’re already in a terrible situation with a clear cause and for which the alternative proposed involves some risk. If you’re trapped in a burning building you shouldn’t refuse to leave because the firefighter who’s come to rescue you can’t explain how you’re going to recoup your loses after the fire. Nor should you try to work with the fire to preserve your most cherished possessions. Rather, you should just leave the damn house and figure out the other stuff as it comes up! Arguably, this is precisely the kind of situation that Lenin believed the Socialists of his time were in: they knew the house was set on fire by the bourgeois state, yet, here is comrade such and such who’s trying to talk with the arsonists and work with them to save the house.

The problem, of course, is that it’s not equally obvious to everyone that the house really is on fire. Political and social dangers are never that universally and unambiguously obvious. We might see them as they apply to others, but we rarely see their connection to us. As long as we fail to do that it’ll only be rational to think that things aren’t as bad as they could be, that there’s still more time and fix them and to work within what’s already known rather than venture out into the uncertain.

In order to recognize such dangers one has to learn (or re-learn) how to interpret one’s situation; you have to learn to recognize what’s killing you as something that’s killing you. And that’s not an easy thing to do when, let’s face it, life goes on quite comfortably from day to day. Of course, ideology plays a big role here since, to a large extent, it forms the interpretive framework through which we make sense of such events as dangerous or not. How could an economic system be causing climate change? Sure, California’s on fire, the Caribbean is constantly hit by the biggest storms we’ve ever seen, and every month is the hottest month on record, but what’s that got to do with me and what’s that got to do with capitalism? Maybe California’s house is on fire, but mine isn’t! I’m happy to help out and make some reforms to help out (I’m not a monster, after all), but let’s not go overboard here…

Of course, all of that is ideology–you live in the same house. The clear answer to this challenge is the fostering and raising of class consciousness, but that’s a topic for another post.

All this is to say that I think that there’s something of value in the urgency with which Lenin addresses the issue that faced him and that on his assumptions, the radical stance he takes is a perfectly rational choice (perhaps the only rational choice). Whether he was right then (as well as now) will depend, once again, on whether those assumptions are true. And that, in turn, will depend on whether class antagonism is indeed the driving force of history, whether the primary function of the state is suppression of classes, whether capitalism can produce enough goods to provide for everyone’s needs, and so on and so on…

One thought on “Socialist Reading Series I: The State and Revolution [Part 5]

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