The State and Revolution: A Reading Guide


We present here a reading guide to the State and Revolution, which can help comrades digest the key ideas from this classic Marxist text by Vladimir Lenin.

Written by Lenin in August–September 1917, The State and Revolution provides a definitive presentation of the Marxist theory of the the state. Written in Lenin’s characteristically clear and incisive style, this book is a cornerstone of revolutionary Marxism.

V.I. Lenin’s great contribution was to elaborate a revolutionary program and strategy for the working class in the epoch of imperialism, while simultaneously developing and implementing the organizational methods of Bolshevism. Understanding that mistakes in theory lead inevitably to mistakes in practice, and that a correct appraisal of the state and the working class’s relation to it was a life-and-death question, he was meticulous in his analysis of this question. Written in the heat of the Russian Revolution in the late summer of 1917, The State and Revolution provides a foundational summary of the Marxist theory of the state. Written in Lenin’s characteristically clear and incisive style, this book is a cornerstone of revolutionary Marxism.

Lenin directs his fire at the reformists for their “servile adaptation of the ‘leaders of socialism’ to the interests not only of ‘their’ national bourgeoisie, but of ‘their’ state.” These words retain their full force today, when self-proclaimed “socialists” around the world give “left” cover for the anti-worker actions of “their” bourgeoisie at home and abroad. Preaching class collaboration and compromise to the workers only sows confusion and foments illusions in the reformability of a system that cannot be made “kinder and gentler.”

In addition, Lenin takes on the anarchists’ confusion on the state. He does not simply call for its “abolition” or the rejection of state power in general. Building on Marx and Engels’s conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat, Lenin calls for the dismantling of the capitalist state and its replacement with a workers’ state, directed at the expropriation and suppression of the capitalists, without which the overthrow of class society and the material basis for the “withering away” of the state altogether would not be possible.

We provide here a chapter-by-chapter guide for understanding this classic work.

Chapter 1: Class Society and the State

In the first chapter, Lenin lays the foundations for the rest of his arguments by letting Marx and (particularly) Engels speak for themselves on the origin and role of the state in society. Providing a number of key quotes from Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State and Anti-Dühring, he draws out the basic tenets of the Marxist position on the state, in opposition to the distortions of “opportunists” such as Karl Kautsky.

Dividing the chapter into four sections, Lenin outlines the following fundamental conclusions: that the state arose out of the division of society into classes; that it exists in order to assure the domination of the ruling, possessing class over the exploited masses and not to “reconcile” the contending classes in society; that it relies on “special bodies of armed men” and physical force to carry out this function; that in seizing power the proletariat abolishes this state and replaces it with the dictatorship of the proletariat, which will in turn “wither away” as class antagonisms are done away with; and that this is impossible without a violent revolution.

It is on the basis of these key ideas that Lenin goes on to analyze the historical experiences of various revolutions and further develop his position on the state. It is precisely these ideas which constitute the dividing line between revolutionary Marxism and reformism.

Study questions:

  • What is the state, and why does it exist?
  • To what degree is the state independent of social classes?
  • What does Engels means when he says that in a democratic republic “wealth exercises its power indirectly, but all the more surely?”
  • What position should Marxists take on universal suffrage?
  • What does Engels mean by, “The state is not ‘abolished’. It withers away?”
  • What is the difference between a bourgeois and a workers’ state?

Chapter 2: The Experience of 1848–51

In this chapter, Lenin looks more closely at the development of Marx’s thinking on the question of the state following the events of the French Revolution of 1848 and the seizure of power by Louis Bonaparte in December 1851.

On the basis of Marx’s pre-revolutionary writings, as well as his seminal Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Lenin shows that the concept of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” runs consistently throughout Marx’s work—as opposed to his alleged support for the “peaceful development of democracy,” as claimed by the revisionists and opportunists. As Lenin puts it, the notion that the state can rise above the class struggle and persuade the minority to humbly submit to the majority is a “petty-bourgeois Utopia.”

He also demonstrates that Marx viewed all previous revolutions as having only further perfected the state apparatus of the bourgeoisie—in the form of the ever expanding bureaucracy and army—and argued that the task of the proletarian revolution would not be to inherit the existing state but to smash it and replace it with the “proletariat organized as the ruling class.” What form that might take is the subject of the next chapter.

Study questions:

  • What is the dictatorship of the proletariat? What is its purpose?
  • Why can the overthrow of bourgeois rule only be accomplished by the proletariat?
  • Why does the proletariat need a state at all?
  • Why was the Russian Revolution compelled “to concentrate all its forces of destruction” on the bourgeois state created in February 1917?
  • What is the difference between the recognition of the class struggle only and Marxism?

Chapter 3: Experience of the Paris Commune of 1871

Having established in the abstract that the working class cannot “simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes” and must instead “smash” the pre-existing bureaucratic apparatus, it was necessary to explain concretely what this apparatus should be replaced with. This understanding could arise only from the living struggles of the working class, and the Paris Commune gave the world a first glimpse at the dictatorship of the proletariat in action.

Summarizing Marx’s analysis of the experience, Lenin sets out the key features of a workers’ state at its inception: the “armed people” instead of a standing army; the election of all officials with the right of recall; the restriction of officials’ salaries to “workmen’s wages”; and the abolition of parliamentarianism in favor of workers’ councils of elected delegates with both legislative and executive functions. This provides a model for workers’ democracy to this day.

Study questions:

  • What position did Marx take on the Paris Commune? How should this influence the approach we take to other revolutions?
  • What for Lenin is the significance of Marx’s reference to the “people’s revolution”? How did this relate to the tasks of the Russian Revolution?
  • Why did the Paris Commune fail?
  • Why does Lenin say, “the transition from capitalism to socialism is impossible without a certain “reversion” to “primitive” democracy”?
  • What is the difference between parliamentarianism and workers’ democracy?
  • Why is the immediate abolition of all bureaucracy “out of the question”?

Chapter 4: Supplementary Explanations by Engels

In this chapter, Lenin begins by making a clear distinction between a Marxist analysis and the views of the anarchists who imagine the state can be abolished overnight. As he explains, the proletariat must use the state as a temporary means to overcome the inevitable resistance of the bourgeoisie. In the name of “principle” in the abstract, the anarchists would deny the working class this concrete and necessary means of defending the revolution.

Lenin highlights the fact that a genuine workers’ state differs from all previously existing states in that, instead of serving a special force standing above society to ensure the rule of a tiny minority, it serves as a tool of the overwhelming majority to repress the minority. Lenin goes on to explain why Marxists are not neutral on the question of what form bourgeois states take. For example, a democratic republic is preferable to a despotic monarchy, insofar as these conditions make it easier for the workers to organize for socialist revolution. But this by no means implies any support whatsoever for the bourgeoisie.

Lenin also explains that the administration of a workers’ state should not be left to privileged officials. Rather, everyone must learn how to carry out the functions of the state in rotation. Once the majority has learned “to administer and actually to independently administer social production,” the basis will be laid for the “complete withering away of the state.”

Study questions:

  • Why can the state not be abolished “within twenty-four hours”?
  • Why is it not necessary to abolish certain functions and institutions of the state?
  • Why is a democratic republic the best preparation for the dictatorship of the proletariat?
  • Why are centralized states preferable to federal systems in most scenarios? How does this relate to the national question?
  • How does the state, as Engels puts it, transform “the servants of society into the masters of society”?
  • What does Lenin mean when he says that “the withering away of the state also means the withering away of democracy”?

Chapter 5: The Economic Basis of the Withering Away of the State

In this chapter, Lenin deals with the transitional period from capitalism through socialism to fully stateless, moneyless communism.

Many of the capitalist countries of the west are referred to as democracies, yet the majority of the population does not have the means to participate in actual politics beyond voting every few years. By contrast, the capitalists use their wealth and power to directly and indirectly influence the state to defend their fundamental interests.

The socialist revolution will give rise to a more inclusive democracy—democracy for the majority, not the minority. But the need for a state of any kind would fade away as the class contradictions that gave rise to the state in the first place fade into history. Instead of being coerced by economic compulsion or brute force to work and follow laws, people will become accustomed through habit to produce for the common good and follow the rules of social life.

Referring to Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program, he draws a distinction between the “lower phase” of communist society (socialism), and the “higher stage.” The transitional, lower stage still bears the birthmarks of the old capitalist society. So while class exploitation has been formally abolished, there is not yet full “equality of life” as the allocation of social wealth is still generally determined by the amount of labor performed.

However, once the capitalists have been expropriated and the profit motive abolished, it will be possible to massively accelerate the development of the productive forces, leading to a relatively quick transition to full communism. Only then will the concept of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need” be fully realized.

Study questions:

  • How do capitalists have more political influence than workers?
  • How would the democracy of socialism differ from the democracy of capitalism?
  • Why would the absence of classes entail a withering away of the state?
  • Why, in a socialist society, would a worker not receive “the full product of his labor” as Lassalle puts it?
  • What does Lenin mean by “bourgeois right” and why is it still present in the lower stage of communism?

Chapter 6: The Vulgarization of Marxism by Opportunists

In the final chapter, Lenin seeks to defend the revolutionary traditions of Marxism against those who argue for reform instead of revolution. He re-emphasizes that the proletariat can neither take control of the ready-made bourgeois state nor refuse to use state power altogether; it requires a state of its own, and this can only be won by force.

Lenin explains that under capitalism, society cannot function without a bureaucracy as the working masses are prevented from engaging in political activity. A loyal bureaucracy is one of the ways that the capitalists maintain control over the state. One task of the proletarian revolution is to break up the bureaucracies of the bourgeois state, replacing all functionaries with elected workers, subject to recall and receiving an average workers’ wage. When “all become ‘bureaucrats’ for a time … no one, therefore, can become a ‘bureaucrat.’”

Criticizing the revisionist distortions of Karl Kautsky, Lenin demonstrates that the conquest of state power by the proletariat cannot be achieved simply by winning a parliamentary majority. This can occur only when the state’s class character is transformed, such that the proletariat is organized as the ruling class, not the bourgeoisie. And this can only be achieved through revolution.

Unfortunately, Lenin was unable to finish the book as he was interrupted by the October Revolution. But as he writes in the postscript: “it is more pleasant and useful to go through the ‘experience of revolution’ than to write about it.”

Study questions:

  • How did Bernstein distort a quote from Marx which said; “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”?
  • Why is it necessary to ensure that the task of administration is one that is shared by all workers?
  • What does the term “centrism” mean when used in a Marxist context?
  • What are the three ways that Marxists and Anarchists differ according to Lenin?
  • Why is there a risk of proletarian officials becoming “bureaucratized” under capitalism?
  • Why is it vital that any administrators are subject to election and recall by workers?

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