Introduction to Lenin's State & Revolution

Revised in 2010, originally written in 2003
By Doug Lorimer

Waving a copy of this book, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez told the 772 delegates assembled on November 21, 2009, for the opening session of the First Extraordinary Congress of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) that he agreed with the book’s central message, i.e., that it was necessary “to create a new revolutionary state from below that is a real mechanism for the construction of socialism of the 21st century”. Chavez recommended that the delegates read Lenin’s book as a theoretical guide for how to accomplish this task.

V.I. Lenin (born Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov on April 22, 1870) was the central leader of the Bolshevik party, which organised the conquest of political power by the Russian workers on November 7, 1917 (October 25 in the Julian calendar then in use in Russia). From that date until the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in December 1922, Lenin was the head of the government of Russian Soviet republic, and then until his death in January 1924, head of the government of the Soviet Union

The State and Revolution is perhaps the most famous of Lenin's literary works. Written in August-September 1917, it was not published until 1918. Lenin's purpose in writing this work was, as he stated at the beginning of the first chapter “to clearly demonstrate the unprecedentedly widespread distortion of Marxism” on the question of the state and the proletarian revolution then prevailing in the international socialist movement by re-establishing what Marx and Engels themselves had written on this subject. Most of the book therefore takes the form of an extended commentary, with extensive quotations, on the writings of Marx and Engels. It then deals with the person “who is chiefly responsible for these distortions”, i.e., Karl Kautsky, the editor of Neue Zeit (New Times), the theoretical journal of the German Social-Democratic Party (SPD), which had been founded in 1869 by German workers sympathetic to the revolutionary socialist politics of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.1   Following Engels’ death in 1895, Kautsky soon became widely regarded as the leading living exponent of Marxist theory.

A final chapter of Lenin’s book, intended to discuss the lessons of the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, was never written. As Lenin noted in his postscript to the first edition (written on November 30, 1917): “Apart from the title, I had no time to write a single line of the chapter; I was ‘interrupted’ by a political crisis―the eve of the October revolution of 1917. Such an ‘interruption’ can only be welcomed … It is more pleasant and useful to go through the ‘experience of the revolution’ than to write about it.”

Impetus for Lenin’s book

Lenin first indicated the need for a theoretical treatment of the question of the state and the working-class revolution in late 1916 while still in exile in Switzerland. In August 1916, Nikolai Bukharin, one of the younger leaders of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (he had joined the Bolshevik faction of the party as a 17-year-old high-school student during the 1905 revolutionary upsurge), had submitted an article ―“On the Theory of the Imperialist State”—for publication in the Bolshevik magazine Sbornik Sotsial-Demokrata (Social-Democratic Review). In a letter to Bukharin, Lenin rejected publication of the article, explaing that “We cannot, when publishing a review once a year, print on such a basic question of theory an article which has been insufficiently thought out”. In his article, Bukharin had argued that “Social-Democracy must intensively underline its hostility in principle to the state power”. Lenin pointed out that this formulation was “either supremely inexact, or incorrect”, noting that Marxists recognised that the working class needed its own “provisional state organisation of power”.2

Bukharin then had his article published, under the title “The Imperialist Robber State” and using the pseudonym “Nota-Bene”, in the sixth (December 1, 1916) issue of Jugend-Internationale (Youth International) the journal of the Zurich-based secretariat of the International Alliance of Socialist Youth Organisations. In the December 1916 issue of Sbornik Sotsial-Demokrata, Lenin wrote a review of Jugend-Internationale in which he criticised Bukharin's article for, firstly, misrepresenting the differences between the anarchists and the Marxists in their attitude toward state power, and secondly, for arguing that Marxists had to “emphasise” their “hostility to the state in principle”.

In his article Bukharin had argued that it “is absolutely wrong to seek the difference between socialists and anarchists in the fact that the former are in favour of the state while the latter are against it. The real difference is that revolutionary Social-Democracy desires to organise social production on new lines, as centralised, i.e., technically the most progressive, method of production, whereas decentralised, anarchist production would mean retrogression to obsolete techniques, to the old form of enterprise.” Criticising this argument, Lenin wrote:

This is wrong. The author raises the question of the difference in the socialists' and anarchists' attitude towards the state. However, he answers not this question, but another, namely, the difference in their attitude towards the economic foundation of future society. That, of course, is an important and necessary question. But that is no reason to ignore the main point of difference between socialists and anarchists in their attitude towards the state. Socialists are in favour of utilising the present state and its institutions in the struggle for the emancipation of the working class, maintaining also that the state should be used for a specific form of transition from capitalism to socialism. This transitional form is the dictatorship of the proletariat, which is also a state.

The anarchists want to “abolish” the state, “blow it up” (sprengen) as Comrade Nota-Bene expresses it in one place, erroneously ascribing this view to the socialists. The socialists―unfortunately the author quotes Engels's relevant words rather incompletely—hold that the state will “wither away’, will gradually “fall asleep”, after the bourgeoisie has been expropriated.3

Elsewhere in his article Bukharin had argued that “Social-Democracy, which is, or at least should be, the educator of the masses, must now more than ever emphasise its hostility to the state in principle ... the present war has shown how deeply the state idea has penetrated the souls of the workers”. In response, Lenin wrote:

In order to “emphasise” our “hostility” to the state “in principle” we must indeed understand it “clearly”, and it is this clarity that our author lacks. His remark about the “state idea” is entirely muddled. It is un-Marxist and un-socialist. The point is not that the “state idea” has clashed with the repudiation of the state, but that opportunist policy (i.e., the opportunist, reformist, bourgeois attitude towards the state) has clashed with revolutionary Social-Democratic policy (i.e., the revolutionary Social-Democratic attitude towards the bourgeois state and towards utilising it against the bourgeoisie to overthrow the bourgeoisie). These are entirely different things. We hope to return to this very important subject in a separate article.4

Over the next two months Lenin made an intensive study of the works of Marx and Engels, as well as those of Kautsky, on the question of the state and the working-class revolution. In a letter to fellow Bolshevik Aleksandra Kollontai dated February 17, 1917, he wrote:

I am preparing (have almost got the material ready) an article on the question of the attitude of Marxism to the state. I have come to conclusions which are even sharper against Kautsky than against Bukharin (have you seen his “Nota Bene” in No. 6 of Jugend-Internationale? and Sbornik Sotsial-Demokrata No. 2?). The question is exceptionally important. Bukharin is far better than Kautsky, but Bukharin's mistakes may destroy this "just cause" in the struggle against Kautskyanism.5

Two days later, in a letter to another Bolshevik (Inessa Armand), Lenin wrote:

I have been putting in a lot of study recently on the question of the attitude of Marxism to the state; I have collected a lot of material and arrived, it seems to me, at very interesting and important conclusions, much more against Kautsky than against N. Iv. Bukharin (who, however, is not right all the same, though nearer to the truth than Kautsky). I would terribly much like to write about this: perhaps publish No. 4 of Sbornik Sotsial-Demokrata with Bukharin's article and with my discussion of his little mistakes and Kautsky's big lying and vulgarisation of Marxism.6

This plan, however, was interrupted by the outbreak of the February Revolution in Russia and the hectic pace of public political work that Lenin threw himself into following his return to Russia in April 1917. However, while in hiding after the July 1917 wave of repression unleashed against the Bolsheviks by Aleksandr Kerensky’s bourgeois Provisional Government, Lenin used the material he had collected in his “Marxism and the State” notebook to write The State and Revolution.

Proletariat as ruling class

Lenin's central accusation against Kautsky was that, while Kautsky still claimed to be a Marxist, he had abandoned the very heart of Marxism, i.e., the necessity for the working class to create its own class organisation of state power in order to replace the capitalist social order with socialism, a classless society of associated producers.7

In their February 1848 Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx and Engels had written that “the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class” and that the “proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class”. In an 1852 letter to co-thinker Joseph Wedemeyer, Marx had pointed out that:

I do not claim to have discovered either the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me, bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this struggle between the classes, as had bourgeois economists their economic anatomy. My own contribution was 1. to show that the existence of classes is merely bound up with certain 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 constitutes no more than a transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.8

The phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat” was first used by Marx in his collection of articles on The Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850 (written between January and October 1850). Marx used this  to convey the idea that, in order to liberate itself from oppression, the working class could not rely upon reforms within the framework of a bourgeois-democratic parliamentary regime, but would have to constitute itself as a state power and forcibly suppress the resistance of the capitalist class. Marx contrasted the utopian-socialism of middle-class reformers which “in fantasy does away with the revolutionary struggle of the classes” with “revolutionary socialism”, with “communism”, adding that,

This socialism is the declaration of the permanence of the revolution, the class dictatorship of the proletariat as the necessary transit point to the abolition of class distinctions generally, to the abolition of all the relations of production upon which they rest, to the abolition of all the social relations that correspond to these relations of production, to the revolutionising of all the ideas that result from these social relations.9

Nowhere in Marxist writing supporting this idea will one find the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” described in terms of the despotic rule of a bureaucracy (privileged officials), associated with regimes like those established in the Soviet Union under Stalin or China under Mao. To the contrary, for Lenin, as for Marx and Engels, the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat” was synonymous with a working-people’s democracy. Marx, Engels and Lenin all argued that this could not occur through parliamentary structures ― through a national assembly of directly elected representatives, since these, by their very nature, left the working majority unorganised as politically atomised voters and the actual exercise of state power in the hands of a military, police and civil service bureaucracy headed by officials drawn from the families of the capitalist class. It was therefore necessary for the working class to create its own organisations of political power—a workers’ militia commanded by elected officers drawn from the ranks of the working people themselves and accountable to a democratically centralised system of assemblies of elected delegates who would combine legislative with executive functions, who would be subject to immediate recall by those who elected them and who would be paid no more than the average salary received by a skilled worker. At the base of this system of assemblies of elected delegates, administration of public affairs would be exercised directly by working people themselves through workplace and neighbourhood meetings. Marx, Engels and Lenin based their ideas on how the proletarian state power would be organised upon the example of the revolutionary democracy created by the Parisian working people in March 1871.

1871 Paris Commune

Following the defeat in September 1870 of the French standing army of Emperor Napoleon III (Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte) by the invading Prussian army, the Parisian workers and small proprietors had carried out insurrectionary demonstrations. Taking advantage of these demonstrations, bourgeois-republican politicians formed a provisional Government of National Defence, proclaimed a republic, and authorised the enlistment of 384,000 Parisians into 254 neighbourhood battalions of a citizens’ militia, the National Guard. Since traditionally officers in the National Guard up to battalion level were elected, there soon existed in Paris an armed organisation of working people with battalion officers elected from their own ranks.

Once an armistice was concluded between the bourgeois-republican government of France and the Prussian army in January 1871, the Parisian National Guard units increasingly defied the French national government and army high command. These units of the National Guard constituted themselves into a Federation of the National Guard, with its own elected and recallable Central Committee. By March 13, 215 out of the 270 listed battalions of the National Guard had adhered to the Federation's statutes, and thus assumed an insurrectionary stance toward the army high command and the bourgeois-republican government, which was now constituted through a parliamentary National Assembly elected on February 8.

On March 18, the National Assembly deserted Paris for Versailles as the seat of national government, demanded payment of rents and commercial bills suspended during the Prussian siege of Paris and sent 20,000 regular-soldiers to seize and remove the artillery pieces held by the National Guard. However, these soldiers instead fraternised with the National Guard, and executed the general who ordered them to fire into the protesting unarmed crowds of Parisian working people. Adolphe Thiers, the National Assembly's “Head of Executive Power”, then ordered all army units and government officials to evacuate Paris for Versailles; this left the Central Committee of the National Guard in control of the city. It immediately proclaimed the establishment of a revolutionary Commune de Paris modelled upon the revolutionary-democratic city government created in Paris under the leadership of the Jacobins in August 1792, and called for  elections for a “Communal Council” to administer the city’s affairs. These elections took place on March 26 , with 222,000 Parisians casting ballots (in the wards where the rich had lived only a quarter of the registered voters cast ballots, most wealthy Parisians having fled the city by then).

The Communal government consisted of 92 delegates elected from each of the city’s 20 arrondissements (wards). These delegates in turn elected from among their members various commissions to conduct the city's administration. As Marx later observed:

The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time. Instead of continuing to be the agent of the Central Government, the police was at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible and at all times revocable agent of the Commune. So were the officials of all other branches of the administration.10

Furthermore, in order to careerism, all officials were to be paid no more than a skilled worker. A quarter of the members the Communal Council were themselves skilled workers (mostly artisans employed in small workshops, Paris being a centre of handicraft industry, rather than large-scale factory production). The remainder were middle-class professionals (such as doctors, accountants, lawyers and journalists). Most of them identified themselves as Jacobins (radical democrats). Fifteen of the councillors were members of the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA), an organisation for international working-class solidarity, commonly known as the “First International”, that had been formed in London in 1864, and in which Marx had quickly emerged as de facto leader. The IWMA members elected to the Communal Council had stood in the March 26 elections as part of a common IMWA-endorsed list of “revolutionary socialist candidacies”.

The Paris Commune lasted for 72 days. The failure of its leaders to immediately launch a military offensive against the bourgeois national government in Versailles enabled this government to rebuild its standing army and to launch a successful military assault on Paris on May 21, 1871. In the aftermath of the defeat of the Commune, the bourgeois government ordered the summary execution of between 20,000 and 30,000 suspected Commune supporters. The ferocity of the repression was so great that even the London Times protested against the “inhuman laws of revenge under which the Versailles troops have been shooting, bayonetting, ripping up prisoners, women and children during the last six days”.11

In an April 1871 letter to IMWA member Ludwig Kugelmann, Marx wrote:

If you look at the last chapter of my [1852 book] Eighteenth Brumaire [of Louis Bonaparte] you will find that I say 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 essential for every real people's revolution on the Continent. And this is what our heroic party comrades in Paris are attempting … If they are defeated only their “good nature” will be to blame. They should have marched at once on Versailles, after first [the regular army units commanded by General Joseph] Vinoy and then the reactionary section of the Paris National Guard had themselves retreated. The right moment was missed because of conscientious scruples. They did not want to start the civil war, as if that mischievous abortion Thiers had not already started the civil war with his attempt to disarm Paris. Second mistake: The Central Committee surrendered its power too soon, to make way for the Commune.12

In his May 30, 1871 address to the General Council of the IMWA on The Civil War in France, delivered two days after the crushing of the Paris Commune, Marx described it “essentially a working class government, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour”.13 By this, however, he did not mean that it could do this. As Marx noted in an 1881 letter to Dutch socialist Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis, the Paris Commune was merely the rising of a city under exceptional circumstances, the majority of the Commune was by no means socialist, nor could it be. With a modicum of common sense, however, it could have reached a compromise with Versailles useful to the whole mass of the people —the only thing that was possible to reach at the time. The appropriation of the Bank of France would have been quite enough to put an end with terror to the vaunt of the Versailles people.14

Nevertheless, in their 1872 preface to a second German edition of the 1848 Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels observed that “One thing especially was proved by the [1871Paris] Commune, viz., that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.’ (See The Civil War in France: Address of the General Council of the International Working Men's Association, 1871, where this point is further developed.).” And in a postscript to his 1891 introduction to a new edition of Marx’s Civil War in France, Engels noted that:

From the outset the Commune was compelled to recognise that the working class, once come to power, could not manage with the old state machine; that in order not to lose again its only just conquered supremacy, this working class must, on the one hand, do away with all the old repressive machinery previously used against itself; and, on the other, safeguard itself against its own deputies and officials, by declaring them all, without exception, subject to recall at any moment … And in the second place, all officials, high or low, were paid only the wages received by other workers. The highest salary paid by the Commune to anyone was 6,000 francs. In this way an effective barrier to place-hunting and careerism was set up, even apart from the binding mandates to delegates to representative bodies which were also added in profusion.

After noting that “This shattering of the former state power and its replacement by a new and really democratic state is described in detail in the third section of The Civil War”. Engels added:

[P]eople think they have taken quite an extraordinary bold step forward when they have rid themselves of belief in hereditary monarchy and swear by the democratic republic. In reality, however, the state is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another, and indeed in the democratic republic no less than in the monarchy; and at best an evil inherited by the proletariat after its victorious struggle for class supremacy, whose worst sides the proletariat, just like the Commune, cannot avoid having to lop off at the earliest possible moment, until such time as a new generation, reared in new and free social conditions, will be able to throw the entire lumber of the state on the scrap-heap. Of late, the Social-Democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the words: Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.15

Kautsky’s distortion of Marxism

When Kautsky (born in Austria in 1854) joined the SPD in 1880, he took this revolutionary working-class approach to the state. In an April 1881 article in the SPD paper Sozialdemokrat (of which he had become a staff writer), Kautsky stated that “Social Democracy harbours no illusion that it can directly achieve its goal through elections, through the parliamentary road”. Parliamentary elections, “as everyone knows have primarily propagandistic purposes”. In a June 1881 article, Kautsky stated that “the first step of the coming revolution, whose goal is to abolish class difference”  would be to “demolish the bourgeois state” and to “create the state anew”, adding: “The coming revolution will first of all raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class … The conflict between the rulers and the ruled will persist, and the proletariat will thus need a government which, as an instrument of the ruling class, will curb the ruled with all the means at its command.”16

However, beginning with his 1894 pamphlet Der Parliamentarismus, die Volksgesetzgebung, und Sozialdemokatie (Parliamentarism. People’s Legisaltion and Social Democracy), Kautsky argued that the SPD could attain its socialist goal through parliament. He argued that “a genuine parliamentary regime can be as much an instrument of the dictatorship of the proletariat as an instrument of the bourgeoisie” and that parliament was where “the last decisive battle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie can be fought”.17 In his 1902 book The Social Revolution, Kautsky, dropped any mention task of “destroying the bourgeois state”. While noting that “Parliamentarism is continually more incapable of following a decisive policy in any direction” he argued that the parliamentary regime “can only be reawakened to new youth and strength when it, together with the total governmental power, is conquered by the rising proletariat and turned to serve its purposes. Parliamentarism, far from making a revolution useless and superfluous, is itself in need of a revolution in order to vivify it.”18

For Kautsky, democracy ― the rule of the common people — was inconceivable without a parliamentary regime. Hence, the proletariat would become the ruling class through through the socialists winning a majority in a parliamentary election. He spelt this essentially reformist view out explicitly in 1912 when he wrote in Neue Zeit that the ‘objective of our political struggle remains what it has been up to now: the conquest of state power through the conquest of a majority in parliament and the elevation of parliament to a commanding position within the state.”19

Herein lay Kautsky's “opportunist distortion of Marxism”. For Kautsky, parliament was not part of the bourgeois state machinery but  a supra-class institution that could be filled with a “revolutionary proletarian” content. The “revolutionary seizure of state power” by the working class meant for Kautsky the election through parliament of a government consisting of socialists. In his view, the task of the socialist party was not to educate and organise the working class to constitute itself as the state power, but for political power to be taken on its behalf by socialist parliamentarians, who would then use the bureaucratic machinery of the existing state power to “liberate” the working class from capitalism.

In opposition to this bureaucratic-reformist conception of the“proletarian revolution” (in reality an attempt to give a pseudo-Marxist justification for the SPD leadership's subservience to bourgeois class rule), Lenin reaffirmed the central tenet of Marx and Engels’ revolutionary socialism — the emancipation of the working class had to be conquered by the working class itself (through the shattering of the bourgeois state’s bureaucratic-military machine by the revolutionary mass action of the proletariat and the creation of radically new state institutions based on the mass organisation of the working people). This meant that the task of a class-conscious workers’ party was to educate and organise the proletarian masses to make their mass-scale organisations of revolutionary struggle the foundation of the new proletarian revolutionary state. This was the strategic line of march that the Bolsheviks argued for in both the 1905 and 1917 Russian revolutionary situations.

Lessons of 1905 and 1917 Russian revolutions

In the 1905 revolutionary upsurge, the Bolsheviks argued for the need for an armed uprising of the workers and peasants to overthrow the semi-feudal tsarist regime and to replace it with a revolutionary democratic government based on the armed workers and peasants. In July 1905 Lenin wrote:

[W]hen we study the lessons of the Paris Commune we should imitate not the mistakes it made (the failure to seize the Bank of France and to launch an offensive against Versailles, the lack of a clear program, etc.), but its successful practical measures, which indicate the correct road. It is not the word “Commune” that we must adopt from the great fighters of 1871; we should not blindly repeat each of their slogans; what we must do is to single out those programmatic and practical slogans that bear upon the state of affairs in Russia and can be formulated in the words “a revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry”.20

In October 1905, the workers of St.Petersburg, then the capital and major industrial centre of the Russian Empire, elected a committee to coordinate a city-wide political strike against the tsarist government (the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies). Shortly before his return to Russia, iIn a November 2 letter to the Novaya Zhizn (New Life) the Bolsheviks’ St.Petersburg daily, Lenin argued that

The Soviet must proclaim itself the provisional revolutionary government, or form such a government, and must by all means enlist to this end the participation of new deputies not only from the workers, but, first of all, from the sailors and soldiers, who are everywhere seeking freedom; secondly, from the revolutionary peasantry, and thirdly, from the revolutionary bourgeois intelligentsia … True, only an armed uprising can really form the basis of such a government. But the projected government will in fact be the organ of this growing and already maturing uprising ... The formation of a revolutionary government could not be initiated in practice until the insurrection had assumed proportions evident to all, proportions that were, so to speak, tangible to all. But now is the time to unify this uprising politically, to organise it, to give it a clear-cut program, to turn all the contingents of the revolutionary army, which are already numerous and are growing fast in strength, into the mainstay and into instruments of this new, truly free and truly popular government.21

In a January 1917 “Lecture on the 1905 Revolution”, Lenin observed that in 1905 the “combination of the proletarian mass strikes in the cities with the peasant movement in the rural areas was sufficient to shake the ‘firmest’ and last prop of tsarism. I refer to the army” He went to state:

With few exceptions, the mood of the officers was either bourgeois-liberal, reformist, or frankly counter-revolutionary. The workers and peasants in military uniform were the soul of the [military] mutinies. The movement spread to all sections of the people, and for the first time in Russia’s history involved the majority of the exploited. But what it lacked was, on the one hand, persistence and determination among the masses—they were too much afflicted with the malady of trustfulness—and, on the other, organisation of revolutionary Social-Democratic workers in military uniform—they lacked the ability to take the leadership into their own hands, march at the head of the revolutionary army and launch an offensive against the government … At any rate, the history of the Russian revolution, like the history of the Paris Commune of 1871, teaches us the incontrovertible lesson that militarism can never and under no circumstances be defeated and destroyed, except by a victorious struggle of one section of the national army against the other section.22

This crucial lesson was reaffirmed by the Bolsheviks after they had led the conquest of power in November 1917 by the reborn soviets of workers’ (and soldiers’) deputies. Following the adoption of a new party program in early March 1919, two leading Bolsheviks, Bukharin and Yevgeny Preobrazhensky, wrote an extensive commentary for use as a textbook in party schools―The ABC of Communism. In it, they wrote:

Many persons imagine that it is quite an easy matter to wrest power from the bourgeoisie, as easy as to transfer a ball from one pocket to another. First, power is in the hands of the bourgeoisie; then the proletariat will drive the bourgeoisie from power and will take the reins into its own hands. According to this view, the problem is not the creation of a new power, but the seizure of a power that already exists. Such a notion is utterly false, and a very little reflection will show us where the error lies.

The state power is an organisation. The bourgeois state power is a bourgeois organisation, and in that organisation people are assigned their roles in a distinctive manner. At the head of the army are generals, members of the wealthy class; at the head of the administration are ministers, members of the wealthy class; and so on. When the proletariat is fighting for power, against whom and what is it fighting? In the first place, against this bourgeois organisation. Now when it is fighting this organisation, its task is to deliver blows that will destroy the organisation. But since the main strength of the government resides in the army, if we wish to gain the victory over the bourgeoisie, the first essential is to disorganise and destroy the bourgeois army ...

If the opposing army remains intact, the victory of the revolution will be impossible; if the revolution be victorious, the army of the bourgeoisie will disintegrate and crumble. This, for example, is why the [February 1917] victory over tsarism signified no more than a partial destruction of the tsarist state and a partial decomposition of the army; but the victory of the November revolution denoted the final overthrow of the state organisation of the Provisional Government and the total dissolution of the Kerenskyite army.

Thus the revolution destroys the old power and creates a new one, a different power from that which existed before. Of course the new power takes over some of the constituent parts of the old, but it uses them in a different way. It follows that the conquest of state power is not the conquest of the pre-existent organisation, but the creation of a new organisation, an organisation brought into being by the class which has been victorious in the struggle.23

Like all states, the revolutionary workers’ state is a dictatorship, i.e., an organisation of the ruling class for the forcible suppression of resistance to that ruling class. However, unlike all previous states, which were organisations of a minority class of exploiters for suppression of the exploited classes, the proletarian state and the executive committee at its head (the working people’s government) is based on the mass-scale organisation of the vast majority of the population, i.e., the working people. In defending this view, which Marx shared, Lenin’s State and Revolution carries the fundamental message that socialism is an anti-bureaucratic project, and that at its core is the aim of bringing into being a society in which, as Lenin puts it in this book, “for the first time in the history of civilised society, the mass of the population will rise to take an independent part, not only in voting and elections, but also in the everyday administration of the state. Under socialism all will govern in turn and will soon become accustomed to no-one governing”.


The abbreviation LCW has been used below for: V.I. Lenin, Collected Works (Progress

Publishers: Moscow, 1964-1970), available on the Lenin Internet Archive (at

1  The name “Social Democrat” was adopted because it was illegal at the time to publicly advocate socialism under Germany’s semi-absolutist monarchist regime , and to differentiate the German socialists from the various bourgeois-democratic political parties

2 Lenin, Letter 104, LCW, Vol. 35

3 Lenin, “The Youth International A Review”, LCW, Vol. 23

4. Lenin, ibid.

5. Lenin, Letter 123,. LCW, Vol. 35.

6. Lenin, Letter 124, ibid.

7. Lenin used the term “socialism” to denote the lower, first stage of the future classless “communist” society of associated producers. Marx and Engels had called themselves “communists” in the 1840s because at that time the term “socialist” was widely associated with anyone who advocated amelioration or eradication of class inequalities through gradual reforms to the existing capitalist social order, while the term “communist” was associated with the advocates of achieving a classless society through the revolutionary conquer of political power.

8. K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 1 (Progress Publishers: Moscow 1977), p. 582.

9. ibid., p. 280.

10. Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 3, p.

11 Cited in Eugen Schulkind (ed.), The Paris Commune of 1871: The View from the Left

(Jonathan Cape: London 1972), p. 27

12 Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 3, p. 421.

13. ibid., p. 223.

14. K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Correspondence (Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1975), p. 318

15. Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 3, pp. 188-89.

16. Cited in Massimo Salvadori, Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution, 1880-1938 (Verso, London), p. 22.

17, ibid., p. 37-38.

18. Karl Kautsky, The Social Revolution, Vol. 1, Part 3 “Democracy” (available at

19. Cited in Salvadori, op.cit. p. 162.

20. Lenin, “Concluding Paragraph to the Article ‘The Paris Commune and the Tasks of the Democratic Dictatorship’”, LCW, Vol. 9.

21. Lenin, “Our Tasks and the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies: A Letter to the Editor”, LCW, Vol. 10.

22. Lenin, “Lecture on the 1905 Revolution”, LCW, Vol. 23.

23. Nikolai Bukharin and Yevgeny. Preobrazhensky, The ABC of Communism, Part III, section 24 (“The conquest of power”); available at