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Red Reviews: “The State and Revolution”

By J. Sykes

Vladimir Lenin was the great leader of the Bolshevik Revolution that overthrew tsarism and capitalism in Russia and built a new socialist society, for the first time in history. His book The State and Revolution is one of his greatest contributions to Marxist theory and is a cornerstone of Leninism.

The State and Revolution was written in 1917, during a period of heightened repression against the Bolsheviks by the Provisional Government led by the Mensheviks and the rightist Social-Revolutionaries. It was written when many of the party leaders were underground or in jail. Lenin himself had first been hidden from the police by Stalin and then escaped the country in disguise. This period, known as the “July days” is summed up well in the 1943 book, Vladimir I. Lenin: A Political Biography, prepared by the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute. “When he went into hiding in Finland he gave the manuscript of his book The State and Revolution to the comrade who was escorting him with instruction to pass it on to Stalin in the event of his being arrested.” Furthermore, Lenin “wrote to party leaders that in the event of his being killed by the agents of the Provisional Government they were to take all measures to publish his notebooks on Marxism and the State.” Following this turn, the Bolshevik’s sixth congress, led by Stalin while Lenin was in exile, decided that the way forward for the socialist revolution was through armed insurrection.

Clearly Lenin considered the work to be of great importance to the revolution. This is because the book outlines the views of Marx and Engels on the state and further develops them. He explains the importance of proletarian dictatorship, how it must come about, and what its primary tasks are.

The main goal of The State and Revolution is to inoculate the revolutionary movement against opportunist currents (namely the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries) who would distort Marxism to their own ends and lead the revolution astray. Lenin had to explain why the revolution not only couldn’t stop short with the bourgeois February Revolution that overthrew the tsar, but must advance to its second, socialist stage, to break up the bourgeois state and establish a new, proletarian state. In other words, Lenin understood that the question of how to advance depends on a correct theoretical understanding of the state and its role.

Marxism and the state

Lenin sums up the Marxist understanding of the state like this, “The state is a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms. The state arises where, when and insofar as class antagonism objectively cannot be reconciled. And, conversely, the existence of the state proves that the class antagonisms are irreconcilable.”

Drawing from Engels’s book The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Lenin explains that the state is an instrument of class power. “What does this power mainly consist of? It consists of special bodies of armed men having prisons, etc., at their command.” Indeed, because class antagonism exists, the state becomes an instrument by which the dominant class preserves its interests by use of force, or the threat of force, and as long as class antagonism exists, the state will exist as a result of that antagonism. Capitalism is built upon maintaining these class antagonisms, which are inherent in the relations of production at the core of the capitalist system. Without such class antagonism, the capitalist class cannot continue to reap its obscene profits at the expense and impoverishment of the working class. Thus the state represents the way in which these antagonisms are held at bay, so that society can function in the way that benefits the ruling class.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. If the working class takes power, because it has no material interest in exploitation and oppression, it can and must eliminate class antagonism. This causes the state to lose its purpose, resulting in its “withering away.”

Thus, society is able to progress from capitalism (the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie) through socialism (the dictatorship of the proletariat), to communism (a society without class antagonism and therefore without a state). Lenin sums this up, saying, “The supersession of the bourgeois state by the proletarian state is impossible without a violent revolution. The abolition of the proletarian state, i.e., of the state in general, is impossible except through the process of ‘withering away’.”


Marx and Engels gave particular attention to the summing up the revolutionary upheavals of their time, and Lenin draws upon their analysis of the 1848 revolutions in Europe and the 1871 Paris Commune. In fact, it is in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonapart, Lenin notes, that “Marxism takes a tremendous step forward compared with The Communist Manifesto.” Lenin explains that in the Manifesto, Marxism treats the question of the state abstractly, but following the experience of 1848, the summation presented by Marx becomes concrete, “and the conclusion is extremely precise, definite, practical and palpable: all previous revolutions perfected the state machine, whereas it must be broken, smashed.”

Lenin emphasizes that this is “the chief and fundamental point in the Marxist theory of the state.”

What does this mean? Lenin explains that “the centralized state power that is peculiar to bourgeois society came into being in the period of the fall of absolutism. Two institutions most characteristic of this state machine are the bureaucracy and the standing army. In their works, Marx and Engels repeatedly show that the bourgeoisie are connected with these institutions by thousands of threads.”

To understand this question of the “thousand threads” it is essential to understand how the state arises. Every mode of production has a superstructure that arises from the economic base, reproducing and reinforcing it. The state is part of the superstructure. As such, it isn’t just dreamed into existence, but arises as the result of definite material processes. So, in the course of development of bourgeois society, the state arose in service to the ruling class, in order to protect and promote its class interest. Throughout that process, all of the various mechanisms of the state were deeply entwined with the needs and interests of the capitalist class, to the extent that one could say that capitalism is the fabric of the bourgeois state. Put another way, capitalism is embedded in the bourgeois state’s DNA.

After the February Revolution in Russia, when the Provisional Government took power, Lenin says, “The official posts which formerly were given by preference to the Black Hundreds have now become the spoils of the Cadets, Mensheviks, and Social-Revolutionaries.” Rather than smash the state, they simply took over its bureaucracy, its police, and its military. In this way, they too entwined themselves in the “thousand threads” of the existing state machinery.

The Provisional Government sought a lengthy period of capitalist development in Russia, which could only intensify class antagonisms between the bourgeois and petty bourgeois ruling parties on the one hand, and the working masses on the other. This, concretely, led the Provisional Government “to intensify repressive measures against the revolutionary proletariat, to strengthen the apparatus of coercion, i.e., the state machine.” Lenin therefore concludes, “This course of events compels the revolution ‘to concentrate all its forces of destruction’ against the state power, and to set itself the aim, not of improving the state machine, but of smashing and destroying it.”

The socialist transition period

Importantly, Lenin asks what should replace the smashed machinery of the bourgeois state. The bourgeois state is a democracy for the ruling class, for the rich minority, and a dictatorship over the toiling and oppressed majority. But the proletarian state that replaces it must be something altogether different. The task is to abolish class antagonism, but until that task is complete, class antagonism and class struggle remain. “In reality, this period inevitably is a period of an unprecedently violent class struggle in unprecedentedly acute forms,” Lenin writes, “and, consequently, during this period the state must inevitably be a state that is democratic in a new way (for the proletariat and the propertyless in general) and dictatorial in a new way (against the bourgeoisie).”

Summing up the Paris Commune of 1871, which Marx called the first instance of proletarian dictatorship, Lenin writes, “It is still necessary to suppress the bourgeoisie and crush their resistance. This was particularly necessary for the Commune; and one of the reasons for its defeat was that it did not do this with sufficient determination.”

Lenin emphasizes that Marxism is scientific. It takes things as they are, rather than dreaming up a new society of thin air.

“We are not utopians, we do not ‘dream’ of dispensing at once with all administration, with all subordination. These anarchist dreams, based upon incomprehension of the tasks of the proletarian dictatorship, are totally alien to Marxism, and, as a matter of fact, serve only to postpone the socialist revolution until people are different. No, we want the socialist revolution with people as they are now, with people who cannot dispense with subordination, control, and ‘foremen and accountants.”

Against all such fantasies, Lenin asserts that we cannot be rid of the state all at once, the day after the revolution. Instead, he says, we must “smash the old bureaucratic machine at once and … begin immediately to construct a new one that will make possible the gradual abolition of all bureaucracy.”

The main theoretical source Lenin draws upon here is Marx’s important text, The Critique of the Gotha Program, especially as it concerns the transition period between capitalism and classless society, which Marx calls the “higher-stage” of socialism, or communism.

In order to overcome class antagonism, socialism must, in a systematic way, overcome all of the problems carried over from capitalism which serve to recreate and reproduce capitalist class relations. This means getting rid of what Marx calls “bourgeois right,” meaning the legal rights of property ownership and the social and political power that the capitalist derives from owning capital. Lenin sums up Marx’s view in Critique of the Gotha Program as follows:

“In the first phase of communist society (usually called Socialism) ‘bourgeois right’ is not abolished in its entirety, but only in part, only in proportion to the economic revolution so far attained, i.e., only in respect of the means of production. ‘Bourgeois right’ recognizes them as the private property of individuals. Socialism converts them into common property. To that extent—and to that extent alone— ‘bourgeois right’ disappears.

“However, it continues to exist as far as its other part is concerned; it continues to exist in the capacity of regulator (determining factor) in the distribution of products and the allotment of labor among the members of society. The socialist principle: ‘He who does not work, neither shall he eat,’ is already realized; the other socialist principle: ‘An equal amount of products for an equal amount of labor,’ is also already realized. But this is not yet Communism, and it does not yet abolish ‘bourgeois right,’ which gives to unequal individuals, in return for unequal (really unequal) amounts of labor, equal amounts of products.

“This is a ‘defect,’ says Marx, but it is unavoidable in the first phase of Communism [Socialism]; for if we are not to indulge in utopianism, we must not think that having overthrown capitalism people will at once learn to work for society without any standard of right; and indeed the abolition of capitalism does not immediately create the economic premises for such a change.

“And there is no other standard than that of ‘bourgeois right.’ To this extent, therefore, there still remains the need for a state, which, while safeguarding the public ownership of the means of production, would safeguard equality in labor and equality in the distribution of products.”

So, we have to understand that the goal of socialism is communism, and the role of the socialist state is to usher in the transition to a classless society, whereby the state will wither away. If socialism means distribution based on work, and communism is distribution based on need, then to get there, people must first learn to work for society without the bourgeois right of equal pay for equal work, and the fundamental inequalities that reproduce bourgeois right must be uprooted. These are inequalities based on things like physical strength, endurance, and fitness, education, skill, family connections, inequalities of agricultural land, contradictions between town and country, between mental and manual labor, inequalities relating to the gendered division of labor, and persisting inequalities resulting from national oppression, among others. The class struggle continues under the dictatorship of the proletariat, particularly in the superstructure. Further, the material basis, in terms of advanced productive forces and division of labor, required for distribution based on need rather than work, must be in place.

The State and Revolution today

Lenin finishes his book with a look at the various opportunist trends in Marxism that were, in various ways, distorting the revolutionary understanding of the State.

Lenin writes,

“It is often said and written that the main point in Marx's theory is the class struggle. But this is wrong. And this wrong notion very often results in an opportunist distortion of Marxism and its falsification in a spirit acceptable to the bourgeoisie….Only he is a Marxist who extends the recognition of the class struggle to the recognition of the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

The capitalists always hide their class interest behind an ideology that pretends to be universal. They speak of democracy and freedom in the abstract, as if they are something that exist for everyone. But Lenin always emphasizes that whenever the capitalist ideologues attempt to hide behind such abstractions, we must ask, “but for whom, for which class?” Marxism seeks to expose these class interests, and the question of democracy in the transition period is no different. Thus, Lenin writes of socialist democracy, defining it as “democracy for the vast majority of the people, and suppression by force, i.e., exclusion from democracy, of the exploiters and oppressors of the people.”

Today, we see the repressive side of bourgeois democracy laid bare. The Zionist genocide in Gaza is bankrolled by the U.S. monopoly capitalist class, led by Joe Biden and the Democratic Party. As the resistance to these horrific crimes grows, in Palestine and here at home, everything is being exposed for what it really is. We are currently seeing a prairie fire of resistance sweeping the campuses of U.S. colleges and universities, where brave and heroic students are setting up encampments, occupying their schools, and demanding divestment from Israel and an end to the genocide. They are being met with tremendous state repression and mass arrests, and yet, in the face of all of this, the movement only continues to grow stronger, larger, and more militant.

In this context, it should be clear to anyone paying attention that the state's job, from the politicians to the courts, the police and the National Guard, is to protect the interests of the monopoly capitalists, who would use Israel as its proxy and as a foothold for its hegemony in the Middle East. The “thousand threads” connecting the universities themselves to imperialism are likewise laid bare for all to see.

All the same, there are many who don’t understand this main point. For example, the social democrats insist that socialism can be brought about through electoral means, and that a reformed capitalism, along the lines of the Nordic countries, is sufficient to build socialism. Even some who call themselves Marxist-Leninists advocate for a peaceful transition to socialism while arguing that the socialist state ought to be built upon the most foundational elements of the bourgeois state, such as the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Certainly, it is true that the masses have always waged a struggle for democratic demands, to increase democracy. But this has been a struggle against the machinery of the bourgeois democratic state, which is fundamentally designed to uphold and reproduce the power of the capitalists. This is a point driven home in the book We the Elites: Why the U.S. Constitution Serves the Few, by Robert Ovetz, which argues convincingly that the Constitution “was intentionally designed…to impede political democracy and prevent economic democracy.” It is an essential part of the “thousand threads” that connect the state to the class that it serves.

On the other hand, anarchists try to convince people that the state can be abolished all at once, and that the day after the revolution we can simply put all of the baggage left over from capitalist society behind us and live in classless and stateless heaven on earth. But Lenin explains why that is a recipe for defeat, and that if we don’t replace the state power of the capitalists with the revolutionary state power of the working class, then the door is left open for the capitalist class to restore their power.

To avoid all these pitfalls, we need to understand clearly what the state is, what its class nature is, and how to overcome it. Revolutionaries today should study Lenin’s State and Revolution, and, as the great leader of the Chinese revolution, Mao Zedong, once said, “cast away illusions and prepare for struggle.”

J. Sykes is the author of the book “The Revolutionary Science of Marxism-Leninism”. The book can be purchased by visiting

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