Lenin’s misreading of Marx
In the first of a two-part article, Nick Rogers claims that Lenin’s "The state and revolution" introduced the concept of socialism and communism as two different forms of post-capitalist society. His contention is that this established a “framework” that in the 20th century was abused to “justify Stalinist practice”.
Lenin spent much of the summer of 1917 in hiding, moving from safe house to safe house, then relocating to an isolated lakeside peasant hut not far from Petrograd and finally escaping to Finland. After the semi-insurrectionary demonstrations of early July had ebbed, an orchestrated campaign accusing the Bolshevik leader of being a German spy allowed Russia’s Provisional Government to take steps to suppress the Bolsheviks and imprison its leaders. Lenin took the precaution of preserving his freedom and possibly his life at the cost of removing himself from the centre of political events.
In Finland Lenin spent much of his time writing up a substantial manuscript, based on extensive notes he had taken the previous year. The topic was the attitude of Marx and Engels to the state and their view of what would become of this institution (or set of institutions) following a successful workers’ revolution. The resulting pamphlet was not published until 1918. By then Lenin was head of government of the new revolutionary soviet regime.
Lenin’s prestige as leader of the first national government - established with the explicit aim of building a new post-capitalist order - was to make classics of many of his writings for the millions who in succeeding decades were won to revolutionary socialist politics. The long pamphlet he drafted in August and September 1917 and published under the title of The state and revolution1 was to be one of these - and arguably among the most influential.
It popularised concepts such as Engels’ discussion of the post-revolutionary “withering away of the state” that until then had received scant attention within the mainstream politics of the socialist Second International. A ‘commune state’ of the type pioneered for a few short weeks in 1871 by the Parisian revolutionaries was identified as the political form through which a workers’ regime would rule.
More fatefully for the future development of socialist politics in the Marxist tradition, Lenin’s work also introduced an interpretation of the discussion in Marx’s 1875 Critique of the Gotha programme2 that this article contends misrepresented Marx’s thinking. This is the idea that even after capitalism has been superseded the cooperative, egalitarian and democratic society for which socialists were striving must pass through two distinct phases, or stages, based on starkly contrasting distributive principles. To these phases Lenin in The state and revolution applied the terms respectively of ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’.3
Ultimately this newly-minted conceptual framework was to shape the Stalinist constitution of 1936, which defined the Soviet Union as a ‘socialist’ society based on the principle of allocating consumer goods “to each according to his work”.4
The idea that socialism and communism represented two different types of society (albeit on a continuum of evolutionary development) was to warp the theoretical thinking of all the parties that claimed descent from the Communist International established by the Bolsheviks in 1919. This includes the Trotskyist parties that broke with the Stalinised version of the communist tradition. Most significantly, the “withering away of the state”, rather than beginning as soon as the workers seize political control, was now relegated to a hazily-envisaged (and probably far-distant) future which would only be reached after ‘socialism’ had matured into ‘full communism’. Only then could consumer goods be distributed on the basis of “to each according to their needs”.
Yet in all of Marx’s writings the discussion of a “first” and then a “higher phase of communist society” occurs only in the Critique of the Gotha programme - a document written with polemical intent for a tiny audience. Nowhere do either Marx or Engels associate ‘socialism’ with the one and ‘communism’ with the other. In fact, Marx and Engels generally used ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ as synonyms for the same future society5 and Engels pointed out in referencing the Paris Commune that the state’s withering away begins as soon as the workers seized political control.6
Lenin’s claim that Marx’s “first stage of communist society” is “usually called socialism” implied that he was drawing on the concepts and terminology of earlier theorists. However, I have not identified an earlier use of the terms ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ to make the distinction that Lenin draws in The state and revolution. It seems to me likely that this was Lenin’s innovation.7 Therefore, to Lenin falls the responsibility for an overly-schematic interpretation that was ultimately to distort how socialists viewed Marx’s thinking about communism and the nature of the transition to it.
This article argues that theorists and activists who wish to learn from the Marxist tradition should do what Lenin did during 1916 and 1917, and return to the writings of Marx and Engels on the question of the state and communism - always, of course, with a critical eye. In particular, they should engage with a gap in Lenin’s research project during those months in 1916 and 1917: Marx’s Capital, which has much light to shed on the mode of production Marx thought would replace capitalism.
State and revolution
Lenin’s The state and revolution is in many ways a remarkable document. Written on the eve of the Bolshevik insurrection of October 1917, it explains how the ultimate objective of a workers’ revolution was to dissolve the very state power it aimed to seize. The document consists of six chapters. The first five are structured around quotations and analyses of the works of Marx and Engels. The sixth deals with the views of Plekhanov and Kautsky in order to expose how far they had departed, in Lenin’s view, from the Marxist theoretical framework.
However, it was not written as a plan of action for the coming revolution in Russia. In fact, the revolutionary events of 1917 receive only a handful of mentions in its pages. A proposed seventh chapter dealing with the Russian revolutions of 1905 and February 1917 was never completed.8 The state and revolution is part a work of theory and part a polemic, aimed at Lenin’s opponents in the Second International parties, who also claimed to adhere to the Marxist tradition - above all Karl Kautsky. It does not discuss Russia’s atypical (from a western European socialist perspective) political and social conditions and the special challenges these posed to Marxist revolutionaries. It was intended as a contribution to general socialist theory.
The state and revolution also served as a project of personal clarification. It had an origin in a 1916 dispute between Lenin and his fellow Bolshevik, the young theorist, Nikolai Bukharin, on the question of the state.9 Lenin had condemned as “unMarxist and unsocialist”10 some of the formulations in an article by Bukharin11 that Lenin refused to publish. At the time, Lenin promised to examine the issue in greater length and - as a result of his reading and note-taking (in a blue-bound journal that, as an anxious Lenin later reported to Kamenev, was left for a period of 1917 in Stockholm) - came to conclusions that were much closer to those of Bukharin than he had anticipated at the outset. In a note to a 1925 edition of the article which initiated the dispute with Lenin, Bukharin writes that at the Sixth Congress of the Bolsheviks, held semi-illegally in Petrograd in July 1917, in Lenin’s absence, his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, passed on a message: “VI asked me to tell you that he no longer has any disagreements with you on the question of the state.”12
Lenin’s central finding in The state and revolution is that the state is a historical phenomenon associated with class society. It came into existence with the emergence several thousand years ago of social stratification and hierarchy. It is an organ by which the ruling elite exercises political, social and economic control over subordinate classes - especially the direct producers of the social product: ie, through most of history the peasantry, but latterly, in the advanced countries of Europe and North America, the working class.
The chief defining features of the state are its bureaucracy and its control of armed bodies of men, along with institutions of coercion of all types, such as prisons.
When the working class revolution succeeds in creating a society in which everyone is a worker and none monopolises the means of production to live off the work of others, classes would dissolve (since Marxists define classes by their relationship to the means of production). Then the state as an instrument of class control and oppression would also become redundant. Lenin quotes from Engels’ The origin of the family, private property and the state (the same passage indeed that Bukharin had quoted in his article):
We are now rapidly approaching a stage in the development of production, at which the existence of these classes not only will have ceased to be a necessity, but will become a positive hindrance to production. They will fall as inevitably as they arose at an earlier stage. Along with them, the state will inevitably fall. Society, which will reorganise production on the basis of a free and equal association of the producers, will put the whole machinery of the state where it will then belong: into a museum of antiquities, by the side of the spinning wheel and the bronze axe.13
If the dispute with Bukharin spurred Lenin to embark on his research, it is those he describes as the “opportunists” of the socialist movement who now are the principle target of his ire - with the anarchists only a secondary target. Bukharin is not mentioned.
Lenin observes that Engels’ use of the phrase, “withering away”, in relation to the state in the famous passage from Anti-Dühring14 has been misused to support gradualist, non-revolutionary approaches to social change. But Engels was talking not about the state created to defend the capitalist social system (the ‘bourgeois’ state), but of the state the workers’ revolution creates. This state is characterised by Lenin as “the dictatorship of the proletariat”, as “a special coercive force for the suppression of the bourgeoisie by the proletariat.”
The ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ has caused considerable confusion down the years. Hal Draper has performed an important work of intellectual archaeology in identifying each occasion on which Marx or Engels mention the dictatorship of the proletariat.15 He finds only 12 instances, clustered in three time periods: post-1848, in discussions of the Paris Commune, and in Engels’ latter years. Draper insists that Marx and Engels use the phrase exclusively as a synonym for a “workers’ state” or “the political rule of the working class” (what in the Communist manifesto is called “winning the battle for democracy”).
Draper speculates that Marx and Engels, consciously or not, turn to the phrase when engaging with the very ‘revolutionary’ followers of Louis Blanqui, in order to differentiate the class rule the ‘Marx party’ advocated from the rule of a revolutionary elite, for which Blanqui was organising.
For Marx and Engels the dictatorship of the proletariat did not imply a special form of repressive rule. In fact they also wrote of the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” when discussing a wide variety of 19th century political forms, including democratic parliamentary republics. The word ‘dictatorship’ had changed its meaning over the course of the second half of the 19th century. When Marx and Engels began writing in the middle of that century, it was most commonly associated with the Roman institution of dictatura and denoted a temporary period of emergency measures, which accorded with Marx’s and Engels’ view of the provisional nature of the post-revolutionary workers’ state.
By the end of the century, the modern-day usage of the word ‘dictatorship’ was emerging and even many Marxists began to misunderstand what Marx meant. This includes the Russian Social Democratic leader and theorist, Georgi Plekhanov, who inserted “the dictatorship of the proletariat” into the 1903 programme of the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party (of which the Bolsheviks were a faction).
Draper explores Lenin’s confusion about the real meaning of the phrase in a number of early works. He judges that Lenin uses the phrase broadly correctly in The state and revolution,16 although perhaps a “special coercive force” strays into the modern rather than the Marxist usage of ‘dictatorship’. In the midst of the 1918-21 civil war, when analogies with the terror of the French Revolution became a regular feature of Bolshevik parlance, Draper assesses Lenin (and other Bolsheviks) to have been less scrupulous in their use of the phrase.17
Chapter 3 of The state and revolution18 deals with the lessons Marx learnt from the Paris Commune of 1871 - as set out primarily in The civil war in France, published by Marx a few weeks after the defeat of the Commune. This event allowed Marx to begin to answer in concrete terms the question of what was to replace the bourgeois state. The objective was not to “transfer the bureaucratic-military machinery from one hand to another, but [to] smash it”.
The bureaucratic state inherited from French absolutism and the two Napoleons was abolished by means of the election of all representatives who were subjected to instant recall, plus enforcing the payment of the equivalent of workers’ wages for public servants. The standing army was replaced by the “armed people”. In fact, the defence of the cannons of the Parisian National Guard from seizure by the official government in Versailles was the spark for the revolt.
No division between legislature and executive was recognised: “not the abolition of representative and elective principles, but rather their conversion from talking shops into working bodies”.
Lenin challenges the claim of leading German Social Democratic reformist Eduard Bernstein that the motivating spirit of the commune was federalism, by arguing that the Commune’s plans for the election of a national government by communal authorities across France would have enabled both local initiative and centralism.
Socialism and communism
For Lenin, The state and revolution was an opportunity to share his discoveries about the emancipatory ideas of Marx and Engels in relation to political power and the type of institutions the revolution would establish. It was an intellectual journey which brought him much closer to Bukharin’s conception of the need to “blow up” the existing state, replacing it with a form of ultra-democratic political power, modelled on the Paris Commune. Once a classless society is created, the need for institutions standing in any way separate from society and exercising coercive force become superfluous.
Yet, just as he reaches these conclusions, Lenin takes one step back from the radical implications for revolutionary practice. Up until the closing paragraphs of chapter 4, the role of the post-revolutionary state has been limited to defending the rule of the working class from its class opponents - specifically, the capitalist class. Now Lenin introduces an additional condition for the ultimate “withering away” of the state. Having explained that, if democracy is a form of state, then a stateless society implies the end of democracy, he is keen to clarify that democratic practice will continue: “We do not expect the advent of a system of society in which the principle of subordination of the minority to the majority will not be observed.”
But how is the minority to be made subordinate to the majority in a stateless society? For the first time in the pamphlet Lenin uses ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ to signify different types of society:
In striving for socialism, however, we are convinced that it will develop into communism and, therefore, that the need for violence against people in general, for the subordination of one man to another, and of one section of the population to another, will vanish altogether, since people will become accustomed to observing the elementary conditions of social life without violence and without subordination.19
This is a significant shift of emphasis. It is being suggested that organised violence by a set of institutions that may still be called a state will be necessary in a form of society called socialism and will only disappear at a later stage. Lenin then quotes from Engels’ 1891 preface to Marx’s The civil war in France to the effect:
In order to emphasise this element of habit, Engels speaks of a new generation, “reared in new, free social conditions”, which will be able to “discard the entire lumber of the state” - of any state, including the democratic-republican state.
The change of direction in Lenin’s line of argument is made clearer in chapter 5 (‘The economic basis of the withering away of the state’20). Here Lenin turns to consider Marx’s Critique of the Gotha programme (abbreviated to the Critique in the rest of this article), written in May 1875 as a letter to Marx’s and Engels’ supporters in Germany (the so-called Eisenachers in the German Social Democratic Workers Party), criticising the compromises they had made in reaching a unity deal with the supporters of the late Ferdinand Lassalle (organised in the General Association of German Workers) and the joint programme that was to be submitted to a unity conference in the town of Gotha.
The Critique is a document in which Marx goes into some detail, albeit in a condensed form, about the future communist society. However, we have to bear in mind that he is polemicising against Lassallean formulations that he regards as ambiguous and open to non-revolutionary interpretation. The Critique was not intended to be a public document (his target audience was a handful of political leaders). In fact a single copy was circulated in Germany and returned, as requested, to Marx. It was not published until 1891, when Engels made its contents public in the midst of a debate about a later party programme. Nor was it what Marx would have described as one of his “scientific” works. His intention was to pound some sense into the heads of those who claimed to be his followers.
First, Lenin broaches Marx’s discussion in the Critique of the “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat”. Marx contrasts the Lassallean concept of a “free state” with what will actually happen to the state after the workers take power:
Between capitalist and communist society there lies a period of revolutionary transformation from one to the other. There is a corresponding period of transition in the political sphere and in this period the state can only take the form of a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.21
Lenin reiterates points he has made in earlier chapters about the link between the state and class society:
Furthermore, during the transition from capitalism to communism suppression is still necessary, but it is now the suppression of the exploiting minority by the exploited majority. A special apparatus, a special machine for suppression, the ‘state’, is still necessary, but it is now a transitional state. It is no longer a state in the proper sense of the word; for the suppression of the minority of exploiters by the majority … is comparatively so easy, simple and natural a task that it will entail far less bloodshed than the suppression of the risings of slaves, serfs or wage-labourers, and it will cost mankind far less.22
But he then returns to the theme with which he closed chapter 4 - the potentially anti-social behaviour of individuals - and adds:
We are not utopians, and do not in the least deny the possibility and inevitability of excesses on the part of individual persons, or the need to stop such excesses. In the first place, however, no special machine, no special apparatus of suppression, is needed for this; this will be done by the armed people themselves, as simply and as readily as any crowd of civilised people, even in modern society, interferes to put a stop to a scuffle or to prevent a woman from being assaulted. And, secondly, we know that the fundamental social cause of excesses, which consist in the violation of the rules of social intercourse, is the exploitation of the people, their want and their poverty. With the removal of this chief cause, excesses will inevitably begin to ‘wither away’. With their withering away the state will also wither away.23
Lenin has added a powerful caveat to his previous discussion of the state. It is no longer merely an instrument of class society, but additionally serves the role (even in the residual form of the “armed people”) of mitigating “the excesses” of individuals. Even in a classless society, only if these behaviours disappear will the state also disappear. It is after adding this new definition of the role of the state to Marxist theory that Lenin introduces his innovatory interpretation of Marx’s ‘two phases of class society’.
In the Critique Marx dismisses various formulations in the unity programme, such as “the proceeds of labour belong undiminished with equal right to all members of society” and “a fair distribution of the proceeds of labour” as effectively waffle: “‘Proceeds of labour’ is a loose notion, which Lassalle has put in place of definite economic conceptions. What is ‘fair distribution’?”24
Marx points out that various collective social requirements must be met from the total social output - reserves to cover unexpected events, investment for expanding production, administrative expenses, education, health, and provision for people who cannot work - before the new society can consider the distribution of consumer goods to individuals. How then is this distribution to be organised? Marx suggests that in a communist society that has only just been established, and which is “still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges”,
… the individual producer … receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such and such an amount of labour (after deducting his labour for the common funds), and with this certificate he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labour costs. The same amount of labour which he has given to society in one form he receives back in another.
Marx makes a comparison with the exchange of commodities (“as far as this is exchange of equal values”) and concludes that “equal right here is still in principle bourgeois right”. This provides Marx with the opportunity to lambast the Lassallean concepts of “fair distribution” and “equal right”:
[T]his equal right is still constantly stigmatised by a bourgeois limitation. The right of the producers is proportional to the labour they supply; the equality consists in the fact that measurement is made with an equal standard: labour.
But one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labour in the same time, or can labour for a longer time; and labour, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right … Further, one worker is married, another not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labour, and hence an equal share in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal.
However, communist society is not static. There will be multiple phases:
But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society, as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society. Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.
In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour - and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour - has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life, but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly - only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!’ (my emphases).
Lenin three times in as many pages in The state and revolution insists that Marx’s “first phase of communist society” is “usually” or “commonly” “called socialism” and that, to the extent that “bourgeois law” remains in place, “there still remains the need for a state, which, while safeguarding the common ownership of the means of production, would safeguard equality in labour and in the distribution of products”. Only when there is “complete communism” will the state “wither away completely”.
Moreover, Lenin explains how the Critique has set out the barriers that must be overcome in realising such a society: an enormous increase in productive forces, the end of the division of labour and the transformation of the nature of work, so that people will work entirely voluntarily without any need to be incentivised. This will mean that “there will be no need for society, in distributing products, to regulate the quantity to be received by each: each will take freely ‘according to his needs’”.25
Until then Lenin insists that “the socialists demand the strictest control by society and by the state over the measure of labour and the measure of consumption”.26 He even makes the claim that in a ‘socialist’ society the state should be defined as “bourgeois”:
Of course, bourgeois law in regard to the distribution of consumer goods inevitably presupposes the existence of the bourgeois state, for law is nothing without an apparatus capable of enforcing the observance of the rules of law.
It follows that under communism there remains for a time not only bourgeois law, but even the bourgeois state, without the bourgeoisie!27
This is certainly a bold application of dialectical logic, but we have moved a long way from a post-revolutionary semi-state that “withers away” with the dissolution of class society. Lenin has replaced that conception with a two-phase transition to communism. The period of the dictatorship of the proletariat is to be followed by a ‘socialist’ society, in which, although there are no longer conflicting classes, there remains the need for a state until people have learnt “to work for society without any rules of law”.28
Lenin has set high barriers to the “withering away of the state”: the vanishing of individual excesses, to the extent that rules are followed by habit, and such an increase in production that individuals can “take freely” from the stock of consumer goods.
In the next article, I assess how far Lenin’s interpretation distorted Marx’s thinking.
Both parts of this article originally appeared in the Journal of Global Faultlines, Vol 4, No2, 2018, which is published by Pluto Journals.
VI Lenin The state and revolution (1918) CW Vol 25, Moscow 1980, pp385-497.↩︎
K Marx Critique of the Gotha programme (1875): www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha.↩︎
I first engaged with how Marx’s discussion in the Critique of the Gotha programme had been misinterpreted when debating a redrafting of the programme of my former organisation, the Communist Party of Great Britain., in 2010. See, for example, ‘Communist transition’ Weekly Worker August 26 2010.↩︎
‘1936 constitution of the USSR’, chapter 1: www.departments.bucknell.edu/russian/const/36cons01.html.↩︎
At the beginning of their careers ‘socialist’ is often a descriptor of political trends they are criticising from their ‘communist’ perspective.↩︎
F Engels, letter to Bebel, March 18-28 1875 (www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/letters/75_03_18.html): “All the palaver about the state ought to be dropped, especially after the Commune, which had ceased to be a state in the true sense of the term.”↩︎
Peter Hudis repudiates the interpretation that Marx’s two phases of communist society represent two distinct stages that are respectively named ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ as “a staple of Stalinist dogma”. But he fails to trace the source of the dogma to Lenin’s The state and revolution (P Hudis Marx’s concept of the alternative to capitalism Chicago 2013, p190). Tetsuzo Fuwa, to whose work my attention has recently been drawn, does attribute the misinterpretation to Lenin: T Fuwa Rereading ‘Critique of the Gotha programme’ Tokyo 2004).↩︎
As Lenin reflected in a postscript to the first published version. “It is more pleasant and useful to go through the ‘experience of the revolution’ than to write about it” (VI Lenin The state and revolution p497).↩︎
See SF Cohen Bukharin and the Bolshevik revolution Oxford 1980, pp39-44 for a discussion of the dispute.↩︎
VI Lenin The Youth International: a review December 1916: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/letters/75_03_18.html.↩︎
NI Bukharin, ‘Toward a theory of the imperialist state’ (1915), RB Day (ed) NI Bukharin: selected writings on the state and the transition to socialism New York 1982.↩︎
Cohen says the message from Lenin was passed on in May soon after Bukharin had arrived in Russia from America.↩︎
VI Lenin The state and revolution p399.↩︎
“The proletariat seizes state power, and transforms the means of production in the first instance into state property. But, in doing this, it puts an end to all class differences and class antagonisms; it puts an end also to the state as the state … When ultimately [the state] becomes really representative of society as a whole, it makes itself superfluous … The government of persons is replaced by the administration of things and the direction of the processes of production. The state is not ‘abolished’: it withers away” (F Engels Anti-Dühring , London 1934, pp308-9).↩︎
H Draper Karl Marx’s theory of revolution, Vol 3: The ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ from Marx to Lenin New York 1986.↩︎
In The state and revolution Lenin is confused about when Marx and Engels started using the phrase, ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. He suggests they first did so “after the Paris Commune”, despite himself quoting Marx’s March 1852 letter to Weydemeyer, which contains a reference to the phrase.↩︎
H Draper The ‘Dictatorship of the proletariat’ from Marx to Lenin New York, 1987.↩︎
VI Lenin The state and revolution pp418-37.↩︎
K Marx Critique of the Gotha programme: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/ch04.html.↩︎
VI Lenin The state and revolution p468.↩︎
K Marx Critique of the Gotha programme: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/ch01.html.↩︎
VI Lenin The state and revolution p474.↩︎
VI Lenin The state and revolution p476. Perhaps this is in part a reversion to the position Lenin adopted when debating Bukharin in 1916. Then he referred approvingly to “the revolutionary social democratic attitude towards the bourgeois state and towards using it against the bourgeoisie to overthrow the bourgeoisie” (VI Lenin The Youth International: a review).↩︎
VI Lenin The state and revolution p472.↩︎