Lenin's State and Revolution Today-- The Preface by Thomas Riggins

Thomas Riggins

It's been 97 years since Lenin first wrote what has since become a "classic" of Marxism:The State and Revolution: The Marxist Theory of the State and the Tasks of the Proletariat in the Revolution, hereafter referred to as SR. I propose to discuss the significance of this work for today (the beginning of the 21st Century) and so will not spend a lot of time discussing its relevance to the world of 97 years ago. 

Therefore, the tasks of the working class in the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 will only be touched upon and I will concentrate instead on the Marxist theory of the state. Lenin and the Bolsheviks successfully applied this theory in their day and were able to overthrow the capitalist ruling class and its supporters in Russia and surrounding areas and to found the Soviet Union in 1922. How should we understand this theory today as we struggle to advance the interests of working people around the world in their effort to free themselves from capitalist exploitation and oppression (including the workers of the former socialist countries)?

I will begin with a few remarks about Lenin's "Preface" to the first edition of SR. First, Lenin's characterization of the state is as accurate today as it was when he wrote his preface: The "oppression of the working people by the state which is merging more and more with the all- powerful capitalist associations, is becoming increasingly monstrous."  

Capitalist states have by now practically completed the merge. In the US  the present economic depression initiated, among other reasons, by fraudulent lending practices and other illegal activities by banks and big corporations has seen the state bailing out the big capitalist firms while leaving the working people, the victims of the depression, to fend for themselves. The state has recently cut food stamps and unemployment  insurance benefits for the working people while giving subsidies to big agricultural and energy interests. There is no doubt whose interest the state serves. 

In European countries the state is either imposing regimes of extreme austerity on the working population in order to extract wealth to be turned over to bond holders and banks or pushing through measures to revamp the labor laws and retirement plans of the workers to their disadvantage in order that the corporations may more easily fire people and will not have their taxes increased to support social programs. 

In the Third World from Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Indonesia, to Mexico, Haiti and Africa , and points in between, we see the state allied with commercial interests and using its police and military to break up strikes and work stoppages in support of the owners of capital. 

Lenin also pointed out that those who claim to be champions of the working class, especially so-called "socialist" leaders have sided with the capitalist class against the workers of their own countries, but also internationally. The French socialist government, for example, openly supports the most reactionary elements of the US ruling class in its international quest to dominate Third World countries. This is in line with Lenin's observation that "the majority of the so-called Great Powers have long been exploiting and enslaving  a whole number of small and weak nations." Is the world any different today?

One of the most effective ways the capitalist class keeps the workers in thrall and off balance is by appeals to patriotism (USA! USA!) and by pitting the workers of one country against those of another ("Buy made in America!"). The idea that the state is somehow class neutral or can be made to champion the workers against the financial and industrial interests is seen by Lenin as an obstacle to mobilizing the working people to struggle for THEIR interests rather than the interests of the exploiters. Lenin uses the term "opportunism" to describe working class leaders who work to achieve narrow short term and temporary gains at the expense of the long term interests of the working class. Opportunism is not the same as reformism which brings about substantive long term changes under capitalism which will strengthen working class consciousness (such as the struggle for civil and political rights.) 

Struggles for reform increase class consciousness in the working class, while opportunism decreases it. This is why Lenin thinks understanding the nature of the state is of vital importance. "The struggle to free the working people from the influence of the bourgeoisie in general, and the imperialist bourgeoisie in particular, is impossible without a struggle against opportunistic prejudices concerning the 'state'".

Up to this point I think the ideas expressed by Lenin in his preface are still applicable today. However, there are three issues that I now turn to which have questionable merit today. 1. "The world proletarian revolution is clearly maturing." This was an overly optimistic, if understandable, position in 1917. But subsequent events actually led to the derailment of the "world proletarian revolution" which shows no sign of getting back on tract anytime soon. However, events in North America and Europe, Cuba and South America, as well as Africa and the Middle East are indicative of a general malaise of the international capitalist order the outcome of which is not now predictable. 2. While there are many lessons to be learned from the Russian Revolution, Lenin was incorrect, I think, in seeing it as the first link in a chain of revolutions which would overthrow capitalism. Capitalism ultimately overthrew it, hopefully for the nonce. 3. The emphasis on refuting the ideas of Karl Kautsky, while essential in the era of WWI, are no longer as relevant as they were in light of the developments in Marxist theory attributable to Gramsci, Trotsky, Mao and others.

Finally, Lenin ends the preface with the following words regarding the understanding of the nature of the state and its relation to the struggle for socialism which he says "is a most urgent problem of the day, the problem of explaining to the masses what they will have to do before long to free themselves from capitalist tyranny." Well, it's a long time since Lenin's "before long" but the problem is still urgent and the explanation must still be made.

Coming up-SR Chapter One "Class Society and the State".

Post your comment

Comments are moderated. See guidelines here.


  • Riggin's reponse to Markowitz's comments and Clay's very roundabout remarks to me seem right on point. Lenin's analysis convinced him that capitalism in the throes of of world war had reached the breakdown stage in its imperialist stage of development. Lenin declared that the whole world system was moribund and that revolution in Russia would serve to bring down the rotten imperialist edifice. Before and immediately after the October Revolution Lenin believed in a wider immenent revolution that would salvage the prospects of socialism in Russia. (True later on he had second thoughts.) It is on that basis that the October Revolution would fit the prescription laid down by Marx in the preface of the Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto. At the time there was no shortage of criticism by Mensheviks and others that Lenin's faith in at least a wider European revolution was a reckless gamble. Nevertheless, it has to be said that Lenin's analysis was based on solid ground. Arguably, conditions were ripe for that wider revolution. However, Lenin himself insisted that successful socialist revolutions didn't automatically come about as a result preordained historical development. That is the point on his emphasis on theory and party organization. Rosa Luxemborg herself admitted to organizational failure in Germany. It is worth noting that later, when the expected revolutions did not arrive in timely fashion, Lenin in "Left Wing Communism" advocated the formation of Bolshevik style parties for other countries, perhaps realizing that he had lapsed into a kind of 'economism' in that regard after the fact.

    Posted by john mackoviak, 01/23/2014 8:32pm (5 years ago)

  • Thanks for the comments so far to both E.E. Clay and Norman-- just a point of clarification: Norman points out that "By the way, before he died, Lenin as leader of the encircled Soviet Union made the point that the future of the Soviet Revolution and its survival was clearly in doubt but whatever the future of the Soviet revolution would be, the victory of the working class and the triumph of socialism through hte world through revolution was indisputable. "-- but in 1917 Lenin clearly expresses his opinion in the preface to SR that the world proletartian revolution was "maturing"-- he clearly thought that major working class revolutions were going to break out in Europe, especially in Germany or France and they would come to the aid of the Russian Revolution-- in was in Europe (and North America) that the "proletarians" were to be found. The German revolution was crushed and world capitalism went into a period reconsolidation. There was no "maturing world "proletarian revolution and the Soviet Union was left to face the future alone. To insist that whatever the fate of the Soviet Union some day by and by (like pie in the sky) socialism will be victorious is an article faith only a little more comforting than the second coming. If socialism is to be victorious it will have to struggled for and there is no garantee of victory and the struggle may end, according to Marx, in the mutual destruction of the contending classes.

    Posted by Thomas Riggins, 01/21/2014 2:23pm (5 years ago)

  • I didn't have time to respond to Tom's interesting and valuable post earlier, but I will try.
    First, on the "world revolution," there was no timetable for it nor could there be. I agree with E. E. W. Clay's comment below that it really is not a question of getting it on track. The objective conditions, the higher level of capitalist interdependancy and exploitation, the intensification of imperialism, creates the conditions both in the the industrialized countries and in the the regions of the world where capital is being exported.
    By the way, before he died, Lenin as leader of the encircled Soviet Union made the point that the future of the Soviet Revolution and its survival was clearly in doubt but whatever the future of the Soviet revolution would be, the victory of the working class and the triumph of socialism through hte world through revolution was indisputable.
    What is important about state and revolution to me was Lenin's continuing to develop his political theory to complement and update Marxism, which he had begun in What is to be Done with the theory of the revolutionary vanguard party, to challenge both the revisionists on the right and the anarcho syndicalists on the left. Here he continues that, rejecting the position of revisionist Social Democrats that through mass organizations and elections, one can took over the existing capitalist state apparatus and establish socialism and the position of the left anarcho-syndicalists that one must smash the state through organizing the masses for violent confrontations and then establish without parties and states socialist cooperatives

    Posted by norman markowitz, 01/20/2014 1:22pm (5 years ago)

  • Civilizations'

    Posted by , 01/16/2014 5:08pm (5 years ago)

  • Note on comments below: Julia Ana Haywood Cooper should be Ana Julia Haywood, "Annie"Cooper-whose book is A Voice from the South(which, by the way uses an almost universality of language: English, French, Italian, Arabic, Latin, German, Greek-both Eastern and Western Civilization's).

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 01/16/2014 10:57am (5 years ago)

  • The present writer will answer Thomas Riggins issues, 1., 2., and 3., point by point, all of which are disagreed. I shall deal with them all in the context of the backdrop of the progress of the South African people and its leader Nelson Rolihlahla(stir trouble and solutions) Mandela.
    1. To say that the proletarian revolution is "clearly maturing" is not to say it is done. The process of historical materialism is a "long walk"-as in the title of president Mandela's book Long Walk to Freedom, a walk that Marx described as helical and winding, even re-doubling and overlapping, path, not anything close to a strait line, of say dominoes, waiting to fall in mechanical as in a linked chain uniformity. This is the way Marx's maybe greatest continuer Lenin too saw and successfully acted on Marx's historical materialism. This is shown in Lenin's view of the 1905 episode, as a "stage-dressing" and not a, for example, "derailment".
    Thomas Riggins-you have too be kidding- "..world proletarian revolution"," which shows no signs of getting back on track anytime soon."(yours)
    In a strict sense historical materialism in history never gets off track. It moves, by Marx and Lenin, independently of human will, according to the forces of production outstripping the relationships of production-ours, is to like brother Mandela, help organize people, workers, and nations to seize on these residuals to form new relationships of power, in new organization, new thought and new democracy.
    That is what happened in South Africa, that is what happened in Cuba, and is yet a world process of modern industry, that the Marxist-Leninists and their allies have grasped-even Pope Francis has recently related that he has met some of these Marxists and has no problem with them- and you say our revolution has suffered "derailment"?

    2. Much of what was said in answering the "world proletarian revolution is clearly maturing", the helical nature of historical materialism from Marx and Lenin answers whether Lenin was "incorrect"(implying that Lenin, unlike Marx saw the progress as advance in a "chain", Lenin saw it like Marx, as helical).
    Further, Lenin's borrowing from Chernychevsky the novelist, for their respective What Is To Be Done?
    shows Lenin as one immersed in the Russian literature and culture. Speaking of literature and literacy, the literacy rates in Russia went up astronomically with the 1917 Revolution, along with its incredible economic and social progress(comparing it to Czarist Russia, and much of the civilized world, then and now), which the counter-revolution of capitalism can never reverse-this aiding the helical and definite progress of revolution as dialectic and producing wonders like Sputnik-which is yet alarming the capitalist world.

    3. The broad, internationalist approach taken by Lenin, though focused on Kautsky was not limited to him. Kautsky was focused on because he was once and relatively lately, an outstanding theorist, and he was the best known leader of the Second International. Plekhanov, Potresov, Rubanovich, David, Legien, Scheidemann, and the Fabians were also challenged for distortions by the great Lenin.
    Lenin took all deviants of the Marxism on, as Mandela did opponents of freedom in South Africa(while confiding in outstanding South African Communist Party leaders like Ruth First, not to mention outstanding Negro Communists like Moses Mauane Kotane of the CPSA and Henry Winston of the CPUSA)-and the struggle continues-but can we hold Lenin responsible for dealing with those who survived him?

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 01/15/2014 3:40pm (5 years ago)

  • Thanks to Thomas Riggins for his boldness and honesty is writing that Lenin was wrong. After all, Lenin could be wrong just as any of us.
    However, please allow for the possibility, Dr. Riggins, that perhaps it was not Lenin who was wrong, but your interpretation of what Lenin wrote and did which was "wrong".
    SR, written in 1917, was astonishing then, and perhaps is even more astonishing now, since the earth-shaking dust has settled. Now, we know how two years later, 1919, W. E. B. Du Bois represented in both the Pan-African Conference and the Versailles(a subject of our latest Marxist I.Q. by Norman Markowitz). Du Bois, who author Vijay Prashad has declared "Du Bois before Lenin", the true history be told, features a host of enlightened African diaspora characters from Mother Africa at the former conference(in 1900, Du Bois led the first Pan-African Congress, featuring the spectacular Julia Ana Haywood Cooper, author of Voice from the South), as Lenin himself led a cast of Russians, Slavs, and Jews, fighting workers and fighting peasants, from Mother Russia, with one of his jewels, just two years prior, with SR.
    Today, with the death of the great Mandela, peace, environmental survival, anti-imperialism, Cuba, anti-repression, employment and anti-war are all burning questions, and we have to focus on them(so happy you want to concentrate on today in this healthy discussion).
    By 2017, the centennial of SR, three years after our CPUSA convention this year, hopefully, thousands and thousands would have benefitted from this discussion.
    In the meantime also, we hope that as Lenin writes in the postscript to SR, we are interrupted with the "crisis"of even more practical revolutionary activity-that is, performing peaceful revolution.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 01/15/2014 12:58pm (5 years ago)

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments