Control the bureaucrats

What are the lessons of Lenin's 1917 pamphlet State and revolution? Not the need for a 'commune state', argues Mike Macnair, but the need for representatives to be made accountable

Lenin’s State and revolution is a peculiar text. It is foundational to communist politics, as opposed to social democratic politics. Social democratic politics insists that the proletariat can take hold of and use the existing state, whereas State and revolution insists that the existing state has to be smashed. Perhaps it was for this reason that it was pretty much marginalised in the ‘official communist’ movement. This was certainly the case from the time of the popular front turn in the early 1930s, but to a considerable extent already by 1920-21.

State and revolution is also an unfinished text. Its origin is in research that Lenin did arising out of his polemics with Bukharin and his co-thinkers in 1916. That research had not been written up by the time the revolution started, though its main conclusions are present in the third ‘Letter from afar’, the ‘April theses’ and ‘The tasks of the proletariat in our revolution’ (all at http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/date/1917.htm). Then, while he was in hiding after the July days, Lenin wrote up the first two parts of his project on the state - consisting of a re-examination of what Marx and Engels had said; and a critique of the principal theorists of the Social Democratic line on the subject, Plekhanov and Kautsky. But at this point the text as published breaks off. So we do not have in a systematic form the theoretical conclusions Lenin drew. Rather, we have the evidence of the programmatic conclusions - ‘All power to the soviets’ and so on.

If we want to find out what Marx and Engels said about the state, State and revolution is a very partial starting point. The whole topic is much more systematically treated, with extensive use of the writings of Marx and Engels (to which Lenin did not have access), in Hal Draper’s book Karl Marx’s theory of revolution Vol 1, ‘State and bureaucracy’ (1977).


The immediate background to State and revolution is the position that was held by Kautsky and the Second International in general. In 1893 the Second International adopted the position that it was obligatory for the workers’ movement to participate in elections and parliamentary institutions. By passing this resolution the Second International made a split with the anarcho-syndicalists, who regarded parliamentary action as unprincipled and thought that that the road to socialism - or anarchism, as the case may be - lay through industrial action.

But then the questions were posed: why are we participating in elections and parliamentary institutions? Is this a (or the) road to workers’ power and socialism?

The classic account is Karl Kautsky’s pamphlet The road to power, dated 1909. Kautsky argues that the state is an instrument of class domination, an instrument of the power of the class which has political control over it. In that sense the state in itself is not tied to the capitalist class, except through the mechanisms of capitalist political control over it - that is to say, the government is formed by bourgeois parties. The bureaucratic apparatus of the state, the form of law and the separation of powers, in Kautsky’s opinion, are technical instruments which any ruling class in modern society will have to use (Kautsky’s views on this latter point are given an extended analysis in Massimo Salvadori’s Karl Kautsky and the socialist revolution 1979).

Therefore, the strategic line which follows is that the proletarian party fights to win a majority through political struggles. By becoming the majority party in the society, the proletariat will be able to take control of the government of the proletarian party exclusively. This will then use the capitalist state against the capitalists, and expropriate the capitalists through the state which the capitalists created. Kautsky argues that at the end of the day the capture of political power consists of the proletariat forming an exclusively proletarian government.

Kautsky’s sharp differentiation from the right reformists is that he argues against the workers’ party joining coalition governments. The workers’ party has to remain an oppositional party until it commands an absolute majority. To quote from The road to power: “The possessing class will always demand, and its interests will force it to demand, that the power of the state shall be used to hold the proletariat down. On the other hand the proletariat will always demand that any government in which their own party possesses power shall use the power of the state to assist it in its battle against capitalism. Consequently every government based upon a coalition of capitalist and working class parties is foredoomed to disruption.”

Similarly, Kautsky on this basis criticised Pannekoek, who argued for the general strike as the road to working class power: the object of the mass strike, wrote Kautsky, “cannot be to destroy the state power; its only object can be to make the government compliant on some specific question, or to replace a government hostile to the proletariat by one willing to meet it halfway ... but never, under no circumstances, can it lead to the destruction of the state power; it can only lead to a certain shifting of the balance of forces within the state power ... the aim of our political struggle remains as in the past: the conquest of state power by winning a majority in parliament and by raising parliament to the ranks of master of the government.”

Lenin’s break with Kautsky

In 1916, Bukharin, Preobrazhensky, Piatakov and others formed a ‘left’ trend in the Bolsheviks, which allied itself with the international left of Luxemburg, Pannekoek and others. Lenin became engaged in polemics against Bukharin.

Bukharin, under the pseudonym ‘Nota-Bene’, wrote in the first issue of an international magazine of the left youth: “Social democracy - which is, or at least should be, the education 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 workers.”

Lenin’s initial response to this, in December 1916, was: “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 point is not that the ‘state idea’ has clashed with the repudiation of the state, but that opportunist policy (ie, the opportunist, reformist, bourgeois attitude to the state) has clashed with revolutionary Social Democratic policy (ie, 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.”

So in December 1916 Lenin’s line on the state seems to be that of Kautsky in The road to power. It is after this article on the youth international that Lenin plunged into research into the approach of Marx and Engels to the question of the state, which led to State and revolution. Why did he then write this up in August-September?

The answer is that there were again debates on the question of the state, in August and September 1917. These debates were live and critical, because the question was: should the Bolsheviks call for an insurrection to overthrow the provisional government? Was it appropriate to have “constitutional illusions” (as Lenin wrote) in the provisional government, or illusions in simple progress by gradually obtaining a majority? Lenin was seeking to turn his party towards the policy of insurrection. It was in that context that he returned to the question of the state in State and revolution. He did not finish it, because the demands of the revolutionary movement made the immediate political question primarily a practical rather than a theoretical problem.

What State and revolution says

As I have noted, the book is in two parts. The first five chapters take quotations from Marx and Engels and try to draw out what they were saying about the state. There are a number of specific points made. The first is that the existence of the state as a form in society grows out of class antagonisms. There are no societies which do not have classes but which do have states. States do not arise simply because the antagonism of classes demands a state to stand above the classes and mitigate their antagonism to prevent civil war. On the contrary, the state is an organ of class rule, an organ for the suppression of one class by another. In the case of the bourgeois state it is an organ of the bourgeoisie for the control of the working class.

There are passages in Engels’s writing - which Lenin does not quote - which suggest a variation: the state which sits above the classes and balances between them, but is in practice controlled by whichever class is economically dominant. Lenin takes the former view - that the state is actually an organ of the ruling class, an institution the ruling class has created for its own purposes.

The state is not a mere legal idea, consisting of special bodies of armed men. Put another way, the state is an army. The classical Marxist doctrine is that the state withers away. The proletariat abolishes the capitalist state, breaks it up, smashes it. What withers away, says Lenin, is not the capitalist state, the state which exists now, but the proletarian state - the state, or semi-state, which the proletariat creates itself for the purpose of repressing the capitalists.

There is a celebrated quotation from Marx and Engels on the Commune: “Force is the midwife of history.” It is not the case that peaceful transitions are possible in order to let the new power be born: it is necessary, says Lenin, for force at some stage to be used.

The capitalist state is a specific entity, which comes into existence following the end of absolutism. There is an ambiguity (and an endless debate among Marxists) about whether the absolute monarchy, with its extended state bureaucracy, standing army and so on, which characterised France, Prussia, and other countries in the 17th and 18th centuries, is a form of feudal state or a form of capitalist state. The texts from Marx and Engels on which Lenin relies do not have an opinion on that, and neither does Lenin. But the capitalist state is an outgrowth of the absolutist state with two essential institutions: the bureaucracy and the standing army.

Among the critical writings which Lenin draws on is Marx’s The civil war in France - his comments on the Paris Commune movement in the 1870s. The Paris Commune provides the model for a semi-proletarian state, the state which the proletariat erects to suppress the old ruling class. Lenin emphasises some particular points.

The first is abolition of the standing army and the creation instead of a militia of the whole people in arms. The second is that all officials are to be elected and subject to recall. This should be taken seriously. This does not mean that only cabinet ministers and the like should be elected and subject to recall. It means that army officers, judges and the official who sits at the desk in the dole office should be elected and subject to recall.

Third, all officials are to be paid a no more than a skilled worker’s wage - an absolutely elementary Marxist principle which the Socialist Workers Party has abandoned.

Fourth, unification of powers. The capitalist state is characterised by what Montesquieu called the separation of powers between the legislature (here parliament), the judiciary and the executive (here headed by the queen); and that these are separate powers. This is clearer in the United States, where the legislature is the congress, the executive is headed by the president, and the judiciary is headed by the supreme court. These three powers are separate from each other and have a veto over each other. According to Marx on the Commune, essential to the power of the working class is an end to the separation of powers - the proletariat needs an elected body which is capable of acting as lawmaker, judge and direct administrator (although Marx expressly speaks only of a fusion of the legislature and the executive).

The second part of State and revolution is the critique of Plekhanov and Kautsky. Here Lenin adds a couple of other points. His main argument against both Plekhanov and Kautsky is that they are evasive about what the state is. It is absolutely true, looking at the texts that Lenin quotes and also at other writings of Kautsky, that the latter does not define the state. He seems to have operated in practice on the basis of the legal idea of the state - the idea of a central public authority. The actual soldiers, police officers, prison wardens and bureaucrats who comprise the state Kautsky regarded as neutral technicians. What is left behind is the concept of a public power which can give orders. But this idea is never explicit or upfront, either in Plekhanov or Kautsky: they just leave what ‘the state’ means ambiguous. Kautsky had suggested, though, in one of his texts, that a socialist government did not mean that the workers at every railway station would decide for themselves when the trains would run. Instead the railways would be under the control of a sort of parliament of the workers. Lenin responds to this by adding two additional points. The first is that it is not just the railways where this would apply. It would be true of every factory. We cannot have workers’ management in the sense of direct management, where we all make separate decisions about what happens in our own little department - for example, in the paint shop, to take the example of a car factory, without regard to how many vehicles of what type are coming down the line. Therefore all large-scale enterprises, he says, require the strictest discipline.

The second extra point Lenin makes is that, while we will have to elect a ‘sort of parliament’ to make the ultimate decisions (about the railways, for example), we overcome the problem of the anti-democratic potential of that situation by providing for the “immediate introduction of control and supervision by all, so that all may become ‘bureaucrats’ for a time and that therefore nobody may be able to be a ‘bureaucrat’.”

First and fundamentally, then, Lenin reinstates the idea from Marx and Engels that it is necessary to break up the existing state. Second, the workers must have their own state, their own institutions to suppress the resistance of the exploiters. This is a “commune state”, a state on the model of the Paris Commune: abolition of the standing army and substitution of the armed people; election and recall of all officials; everyone to be held to a worker’s wage; the unification of powers. And, although large-scale operations require strict discipline and hierarchy, to overcome the anti-democratic effects of that hierarchy, we introduce control and supervision by all.

The fate of the ‘commune state’

In practice this idea of the state was extremely short-lived.

Certainly the Bolsheviks took power in October 1917 on the basis of a militia, the Red Guards, which they thought of as the armed people. The possibility of their taking power this way arose from the military-political success of the Red Guards and Bolshevik agitators in turning back the Kornilov coup attempt in September. They defeated Kornilov essentially by tactics of fraternisation with the ranks of the soldiers on the other side. Very shortly after the revolution, however, the white general, Kaledin, mobilised an army of Cossacks to take back Petrograd. Once again the Red Guards attempted the tactic of fraternisation but this time it failed. Petrograd would have fallen if it were not for the fact that the workers of the Putilov arms factory improvised artillery: thereby turning the Red Guards from a militia into a quasi-regular army.

Similarly, across western Russia and in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Finland, the Red Guards were unable to defeat German regular troops. Fraternisation did not work and as a military organisation the Red Guards were insufficient. This military judgment was confirmed when fighting restarted after the temporary break in the negotiations at Brest-Litovsk, in January 1918. The German army rolled over the Red Guards and advanced at great speed. Finally those holding out against making peace were forced to agree that Lenin was right and it was necessary to accept the German terms.

In response to this the Bolsheviks created a standing army, the Red Army. The part of the narrative of the Russian Revolution which both many of the Trotskyists and the ‘official communists’ for different reasons suppress, is the struggle in 1918-20 to create a disciplined, organised, regular army. Behind that, if you are going to have a regular army you need specialists organising the flow of supplies to the army. You need people who know military technique. So the period of the creation of the Red Army is the period of the use by the Bolsheviks of spetsy (specialists) drawn from the old regime. They were subject to control or supervision by party commissars. But nonetheless, it is clear that with the use of specialists the public power is not being immediately returned to the people.

In order to get the spetsy to work, it was necessary to pay them more than the average worker, because they had a monopoly on certain skills and so could hold out and refuse to work unless they were paid more. Then another problem develops: the spetsy are better paid than the Bolsheviks who are supervising them, and we get a dynamic of corruption, and the growth of special privileges for the bureaucracy - already beginning in the later part of the civil war.

The party state

At the end of the day the difference between 1917 and the Paris Commune is the existence of the Bolshevik Party. The Paris Commune was the seizure of power by the working class in the capital. October 1917 was similarly the seizure of power by the working class in the capital. The fundamental reason why the Commune failed and October succeeded is that Bolshevik organisations and those sympathetic to them - in the cities all over Russia, and in particular in Siberia - seized the cities, seized the railways, with or without local soviet authorisation.

Then the Bolshevik Party was forced to create a standing army, and was therefore forced to create a bureaucratic apparatus. And the spinal core of the new state was party political supervision over the spetsy, which countered the tendency back to a tsarist-type state. In 1917 the Bolshevik Party had about 300,000 members, overwhelmingly workers. By 1921 it had about the same numbers, but 80% were officials. They had been drawn into the work of supervising the state bureaucratic apparatus. They could not dispense with this apparatus, but had to put themselves at its core.

Conversely, the party turned the soviets into an image of the party. It is characteristic of the structure of ordinary political parties that you have an annual conference which elects a leadership, and that the leadership then runs the affairs of the party between the annual conference. The Bolsheviks converted the soviets into bodies which met periodically and elected an executive committee which then ran affairs in substitution for the full soviet. The ‘commune’ principle of election and recall then ceases to operate. The executive committee, and ultimately the council of soviet commissars, has become a political leadership like the leadership of a political party, not a recallable delegate body. It could only actually be a recallable delegate body if the soviets themselves were standing bodies, like parliaments, which met daily for most of the year.

This was a symptom of the fact that the actual spinal core of the state was the party. This was the dictatorship of the proletariat through the dictatorship of the Bolshevik Party as political representatives of the proletariat, not the dictatorship of the proletariat through the commune state.

Now theory begins to follow practice. The 1920 Comintern ‘Theses on the role of the Communist Party in the proletarian revolution’ and Zinoviev’s report on them (see www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/2nd-congress/index.htm) present a distinct departure from the line of State and revolution: they argue that the proletariat is necessarily represented in the dictatorship of the proletariat by its most advanced part, the Communist Party. They also theorised both state and party as strong, centralised military dictatorship forms.

Behind the failure

The reason for the transition to the regular army and the dictatorship of the party can be found in the practical necessities of Russia, faced with German and other invaders and White Guard resistance. War is a matter of technique, as Trotsky correctly argued at the time. It is not the case that a militia can defeat a regular army in a straight fight.

The underlying problem is that states in historical societies are not just instruments for the control of the class struggle within the society. They are also partly for external defence against foreign enemies, and for dealing with natural disasters. The state in this sense is an aspect of the social division of labour. When Marx and Engels talk about the withering away of the state, or when we think seriously about what the withering away of the state means (ie, the withering away of the social specialisation of functions: of becoming a soldier or a bureaucrat and remaining a soldier or a bureaucrat for the rest of your life), we are talking about the higher phase of communism.

Hence the mistake in the idea of the ‘commune state’ is that it actually presupposes the immediate end to the social division of labour. Lenin does not think that he has become an anarchist utopian. But because he imagines the state as being simply an instrument for the control of class conflicts, he writes out of existence the state as a defence against external enemies - and hence regular armed forces and war as a technique. The ‘commune state’ is thus really a proposal for the abolition of the state, not for its withering away.

There is a historical background to this, which is that Marx and Engels, when writing about the state, start with Hegel’s critique, which itself starts with a reinterpretation of Hobbes’s Leviathan. And Hobbes is purely concerned with the state without its external relations, assuming the state to be in existence in a vacuum - in the absence of foreign enemies, in the absence of natural disasters. It is a theory of the lawyers’ conception of the state. Only in the material which they write on the Asiatic mode of production, which is not integrated in Lenin’s State and revolution, do Marx and Engels go beyond that narrow conception.

Revolution and the state

There is a point, however, on which Lenin is clearly right: and that is regarding the historical transitions between one form of society and another. For example, the Roman state has to fall in order to open the way for feudalism. In the case of the Byzantine state, although there is a development towards feudalism from the 7th century, its political expression is constantly blocked until, finally, the state falls in 1453. Similarly, the feudal states have to be smashed up (zerbrechen), in order to set free the development of capitalism. And we can infer from that, and also equally clearly from the Commune and from 1917, and from all the events that have happened since, that the capitalist state has to fall in order set free the path of proletarian development.

But why is the state - which, as we have said, is simply an army with a bureaucracy to back it - so tied to a particular class that it has to be overthrown in order for another class to succeed it? The answer is that the state is cohered by its structural forms and core ideology. If it was just armed men, all that the state would be would be the aggregate collection of protection rackets existing throughout the society. This would be more accurately called warlordism, or the absence of a state, or the war of all against all, or Afghanistan. In order to be a state, is has to be organised bodies of armed men: it has to be cohered. It is cohered on the basis of institutional forms.

In the slave-owner state, such as the Roman Empire, the emperor is said to be the owner of the world: imperator dominus mundi. On that basis he is entitled to take from anybody, and give to anybody else. That is the basis of his legitimacy and his right to tax. The bureaucracy in the late Roman state originates with slaves owned by the emperor. It becomes something different - it decays - but the underlying principle remains that the social and political forms of slavery give the structural forms of the slave-owner state.

Similarly in feudalism the king is the greatest feudal landowner and the state consists of the king’s retinue. The king is expected to live off his feudal revenue. The structural forms of the feudal state are given by the class relations between the feudal ruling class and the serfs: the state is imagined as a manor on a very large scale. The structural forms of the bourgeois state - particularly the rule of law, constitutionalism, the separation of powers and the existence of a central bank and credit financing - tie it to capitalism.

These institutional and ideological links to the classes which historically created them mean that states actively resist the rise of new ruling classes, and cannot be ‘made over’ by structural reforms without provoking some form of coup d’etat or forcible resistance by the state core. A state is, after all, an armed organisation which defends itself. The activity of courts and police is everyday coercion in the interests of property-owners. Thus Marx and Lenin are right that the working class needs to smash the capitalist state, and Kautsky is wrong.

What sort of workers’ state?

The question which is clearly not answered - either by Marx and Engels on the Commune or by Lenin in State and revolution - is, what are the structural forms which would tie the state to the proletariat? Marx, Engels and Lenin talked of getting rid of the standing army and the bureaucracy. The public power, the legal concept of the state, will wither away. But if we assume that a standing army and bureaucracy will remain, how do we make these dependent on the proletariat, and create the conditions for them to wither away in the long run?

Here, election and recallability of officials, the worker’s wage and the end of the separation of powers are certainly starting points. But it also seems to me that it has to be the case that, just as the Bolshevik Party turned out to be the spinal core of the new Soviet state, the only conditions under which there will actually be a revolution which is not just a commune or a temporary rise of workers’ councils which then ebb away (as happened in France in 1968 and Portugal in 1974-76) is if there is a party which is committed to carrying through the smashing of the old state and taking power.

The consequence is that the workers’ movement needs to work out the institutional forms which will make a professional bureaucracy answerable to the lay members. It needs to work that out in the existing organisations of the working class. It needs to learn how to control power. It needs to develop institutions that go far beyond the thin, impoverished parties of today, which do not address different aspects of the cultural life of the class. Within this network or web of institutions under capitalism the proletariat needs to learn how to create its own power over its full-time apparatus.

In that sense it remains the case that State and revolution has absolutely fundamental lessons for us. It is just that those lessons are not those imagined by the left and council communists and more recently the spontaneists and the ‘councillist’ Trotskyists who fetishise the soviet form. The lesson is not that soviet power is the magic wand which lets the proletariat take the power. It is that the proletariat needs to begin to develop power over its full-timers under conditions of bourgeois rule - in its own institutions, in its own organisations - if it is to be in a position to take the power from the bourgeoisie and create a state which is actually answerable to the working class, rather than one which becomes a state for itself, like the Stalinist regime.