Lenin: State and Revolution: Chapter 6 - Vulgarisation of Marxism by the Opportunists (Part One) Review by Thomas Riggins

Opportunists ignore the question of state and its relation to revolution as presented by Marx and Engels.

Thomas Riggins

 This chapter is a polemic against the "best known theoreticians of Marxism" namely Georgi Plekhanov (1856-1918) and  Karl Kautsky (1857-1938) who were the leading thinkers of the Second International (1888-1914). Basically it is against Kautsky  (13 pages)-- Plekhanov gets 1 page. Lenin thinks the collapse of the Second International was brought about by opportunism (abandoning the long term goals of the party for short term advantages) which was fostered by the evasion of discussion on the relation of the state to the social revolution and vice versa. This "evasion" has persisted to the present day. The well known A Dictionary of Marxist Thought (Second Edition) edited by Tom Bottomore, for example, has no entry on "opportunism" and does not even list it in the index. The entry on The State and Revolution does not even mention it.

The chapter is divided into three sections: a short one contra Plekhanov and two long ones dealing with Kautsky. This article will deal with the first two sections.

1. Plekhanov's Polemic Against the Anarchists

This section deals with Lenin’s critique of Plekhanov’s 1894 work Anarchism and Socialism.  Lenin says in this work Plekhanov doesn’t even mention the most important issue between these two ‘isms’ — namely the nature of the state and the revolution’s relations to it. The work has two parts: the first, or historical part, Lenin approves of because it has useful information for the history of ideas, especially regarding Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) and Max Stirner (1806-1856). The second, or “literary” part Lenin calls “philistine.” This part is a “clumsy” attempt to equate anarchists with “bandits.”

After the Paris Commune the anarchists had tried to claim that the commune and its history was a vindication of their views. Lenin of course rejects this claim and maintains that the true understanding of the meaning of the Commune is to be found in the writings of Marx and Engels, especially Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme.

Neither the Anarchists, nor Plekhanov in his polemic, have grasped the main issue presented by the history of the Paris Commune i.e., “must the old state machinery be shattered, and what shall be put in its place.”

By completely ignoring this issue Plekhanov, whether he knows it or not, has fallen into opportunism because opportunists want us to forget all about this question and not even discuss it all. It would seem that opportunism flourishes best where the working people are ignorant of Marxist theory and concentrate exclusively on short term goals and struggles.

2. Kautsky’s Polemic Against the Opportunists

Lenin says the most important German opportunist was Bernstein whom Kautsky criticized in his first foray against opportunism: Bernstein und das sozialdemokratische Programm. Bernstein had charged Marxism with “Blanquism” [ Louis Auguste Blanqui, 1805-1881- advocated a coup by a small group who would then turn the government over to the people after they had instated socialism] in his great revisionist opus Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus. Bernstein particularly likes Marx’s conclusion (based on his study of the Paris Commune) that “the working class cannot lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it to its own purposes.” But he has his own interpretation of the meaning of Marx’s dictum which is exactly the opposite of what Marx intended.

Marx meant, according to Lenin (following Engels), that the working class had to destroy the bourgeois state and replace it with a working class state. Bernstein says it means that the working class should cool it after the revolution and try and reform the state rather than getting carried away and trying to smash it. “A crasser and uglier perversion of Marx’s ideas cannot be imagined,” Lenin says.

So, how did Kautsky deal with this crass opportunistic formulation in his critique of Bernstein?   He glosses over it. Kautsky writes: “The solution of the problem of the proletarian dictatorship we can safely leave to the future.” Lenin says the since opportunists want to defer to the future all talk about a working class revolution this is not a real critique of Bernstein but “ a concession to him.” 

Kautsky himself is thus an opportunist and, Lenin points out, as regards Marx’s understanding of how the workers should be educated with respect to a working class revolution and Kautsky’s understanding “there is an abyss.”

In 1902 Kautsky wrote a more mature work, The Social Revolution. Lenin says there is a lot of valuable information in this work but the author still evaded the vital question of the state. Again, Kautsky ends up giving de facto support to the opportunists because he writes about the possibility of the working class taking state power without abolishing the currently existing state. This view, which derives from The Communist Manifesto of 1848 Marx had declared “obsolete” in 1872.

Kautsky writes about democracy and that the working class will come to power and “realise the democratic programme” but he never mentions the lessons of the Paris Commune and the conclusions  Marx and Engels drew from them that bourgeois democracy had to be replaced by working class democracy.

Here is a quote from Kautsky: “It is obvious that we shall not attain power under the present order of things. Revolution itself presupposes a prolonged and far-reaching struggle which, as it proceeds, will change our present political and social structure.” While this is even too much for some present day “socialists” to stomach, Lenin thought it was as banal and obvious as “horses eat oats.” Lenin wanted this “far reaching struggle” spelled out so that working people would understand the difference between a working class revolution and the non working class revolutions of the past.

Kautsky wars against opportunism in words, Lenin says, but actually promotes it in the way he expresses himself. Here is an example from The Social Revolution: “In a Socialist society there can exist side by side, the most varied forms of economic enterprises — bureaucratic trade union, trade union, co-operative, private…. There are, for instance, such enterprises that cannot do without a bureaucratic organization: such are the railways. Here democratic organisation might take the following form: the workers elect delegates, who form something in the nature of a parliament, and this parliament determines the conditions of work, and superintends the management of the bureaucratic apparatus. Other enterprises may be transferred to the labour unions, and still others may be organized on a co-operative basis.” Lenin says this quote is not only wrong headed but is a backward step from the ideas Marx and Engels elaborated in the 1870s as a result of their study of the Paris Commune. 

Of course modern industrial production in general, not just railroads, needs to be conducted under rigid work rules and regulation but after the workers come to power they won’t be organized on bureaucratic lines overseen by “something like” the old bourgeois parliaments. There will no bureaucrats as such. The workers will directly control their industries and delegates will be subject to instant recall, no one will earn more than ordinary workers, and the old state will be replaced by a new worker’s state where everyone will gain experience in administration and planning so that “bureaucrats” in the sense used by Kautsky will no longer exist. Kautsky has not paid attention to the words of Marx: “The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time.”

Lenin next takes up Kautskys short work The Road to Power [ Der Weg zu Macht ]. Lenin thinks this is the best of Kautsky's writings against opportunism, yet it too is found wanting and for the same reason "it completely dodges the question of the state." It is this constant dodging that Lenin thinks weakened the German Social Democrats theoretically, led to the growth of opportunism, and ultimately to the great betrayal of socialist principles: the support of the German imperialists in the Great War.  These three short works of Kautsky came out in 1899, 1902, and 1909 respectively but it was not until 1912 that Kautsky's opportunism became explicitly expressed. We will deal with this in the next and (por fin) last installment of this review, Kautsky's polemic against Pannekoek.

Post your comment

Comments are moderated. See guidelines here.


  • The Great Betrayal:
    The arguments Lenin uses to attack the vulgarization of Marxism are fairly simple and straightforward. Just to cite a few of them. The state is an instrument by which one class, the capitalists, oppresses and exploits another, the working class. The goal of revolution is to overthrow the capitalists as a ruling class, and to smash and replace the bourgeoisie state with a democratic workers state. These are the great historical lessons of the Paris Commune of 1871 as Marx and Engels understood them. Lenin viewed the Great War, WWI, as another historical opportunity for a working class revolution that would finally overthrow the highly militarized, imperialistic, and monopolized capitalistic states of Europe. What Lenin calls the vulgarization of Marxism involves no plan to smash the bourgeoisie state in the immediate or distant future. The goal is to reform it, use, manage, and administer it in the name of the working classes, but for the benefit of the bourgeoisie classes. In fact, the question of the relationship between state and revolution is ignored or simply not discussed by the vulgar Marxists. A real working class revolution would have ended class divisions, war, imperialism, and militarism. Instead, something else happened that violated Lenin’s expectations. The vulgar Marxists, revisionists, opportunists, pseudo-socialists, and so-called socialists voted for war and funding to send the laboring classes to the killing fields of Flanders, Gallipoli, Somme, and Verdun. For Lenin, this constituted “the great betrayal of socialist principles.” On the killing fields, working class armies slaughtered each other, saving their respective capitalist states from both social revolution and rival imperialistic capitalistic states. For Lenin, this was the ultimate consequence of the vulgarization of Marxism, the inability to turn the energies and power of the working classes against the bourgeoisie state. The vulgar Marxists have become the state. They do all they can to protect and defend the bourgeoisie state against rival imperialistic and capitalistic states. And they also defend the bourgeoisie state against the working classes themselves, sending them off to the killing fields. Lenin would say these are the ugly truths of the vulgarization of Marxism. NT

    Posted by Nat Turner, 12/15/2014 3:13am (10 years ago)

  • I agree Tom. This is a really solid analysis. Too bad we didn't have it a hundred years ago, especially in the U.S. where questions of theory and its relationship to practice, by the majority socialists then, and by others we know only too well now, tended to be pushed the periphery and even mocked as an impediment to action.

    What is important though is always to understand that theory and practice exist dialectically in relationship to one another and when that relationship is broken, either by the right opportunism associated with Bernstein, " the idea(theory) means nothing, the movement(action) means everything" or by sectarianism, which in Europe became "Marxology" the theoretical questions live in a world of their own regardless of political economic reality, the results are either liquidation(we are not Marxist-Leninists, not Communists, and eventually not anything) or self -imposed isolation, what one Comrade once said of the sectarian debates, "socialism in one room" or salon
    Norman Markowitz

    Posted by norman markowitz, 12/09/2014 6:59pm (10 years ago)

  • This is an excellent review by Thomas Riggins. State and Revolution by V. I. Lenin makes a case for protecting and preserving human and civil rights in civilization's history like no other book.
    It is one of the shining examples of why W. E. B. Du Bois urges especially Americans and civil rights activists to know and study the experiences of other peoples in other lands, at other times.
    Ultimately, human history is one history.
    The human right to dictate the character and composition of a state, is high on the human rights barometer.
    Du Bois consistently taught that the civil and human right to know was crucial to both democracy and freedom. In line with this, it is important to study and know the details and travails of the 1917 revolution in Russia, resulting in the Soviet Union, because it had and has had a profound affect on both "Eastern" and "Western" civilization.
    Lenin, and Karl Marx before him, like those Americans repressed in the first and second Red Scares, (including Du Bois) fought for the human and civil right to know 5,000 years of civil rights history and to be citizens of the world, as working class advocates.
    Specifically in North America, Asian (both Japanese and Chinese) Native, African, Africa through the Caribbean (especially Haiti), and even South American civil rights and anti-colonial/anti-imperialist struggle, has been the bulwark of this.
    We hear much to little of the fact of how Jose' Marti' and Simon Bolivar supported civil rights progress, abolition and liberation in Central and North America. The Communist historian Gerald Horne, in his prolific contributions( Race to Revolution, Black and Brown, Fighting in Paradise, The Deepest South and other works) is helping to bridge big gaps in this North American human and civil history-from Florida to Hawaii to Brazil-and internationally. In one of Horne's latest books, for instance, The Counter Revolution of 1776, and his separate book, Negro Comrades of the Crown, Horne explains how opposing the abolition of slavery, and slave resistance itself, helped severely limit the revolutionary character of North America's 1776 Revolution so much, that it was, in large part, a counter-revolution to the pressure from slave rebellions and movements in Europe to abolish slavery-this to the point of African American soldiers fighting within the ranks of the British Crown. This great irony points up the reality maybe that "labor in the white skin can never be free while labor in the black skin in branded", as Marx would remind us. More-perhaps the crucial question of the period of 1776 was not whether British colonialism would prevail, but rather, would the world institution of chattel slavery in the Americas survive the Atlantic Revolutions?
    Needless to say, this question had and has critical implications for present and future struggles of the international working class, its civil and human rights, police and police state violations of these, and the way we examine and move to act in present day struggles. For instance, today, what might Ferguson protestors, facing police abuses and an entrenched blind police supporter, Prosecutor Mc Culloch, Wal-Mart retail and Mc Donald restaurant workers, also facing repression, do to support one another as multi-racial, multi-national, multi-generational civil rights and workers' rights advocates in the tradition of Lenin and Du Bois, as they declare the right to change and control the whole chain of the state mechanism, and to operate it in their own interests, as opposed to the interests of the monopolists, transnational corporations, capitalists and imperialists-you know, the big box chains, the restaurant chains, the "public" stock-owned companies (owned by wealthy coupon clippers), the "futures" owners, the exploitive manufacturers, who, with war, prison, white police forces- like that in Ferguson (or, these police forces may be Black), those wielding military and political administrative power, who routinely crush and take human life, violating human and civil rights, in law and in practice, of workers- all over the globe (Nigeria, Algeria, Bosnia, Ukraine, Venezuela, Mexico, Columbia, Palestine (West-Bank), Cuba, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan-with Ferguson, MO-U S A and lots more)?
    Our present struggle has everything to do with State and Revolution-and uniting workers of the world-pushing for a new, revolutionary, pro-worker state or government.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 12/02/2014 3:34pm (10 years ago)

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