Introduction to Lenin’s ‘State & Revolution’

Written in 1999
By Doug Lorimer

The State and Revolution is perhaps the most famous of Lenin’s literary works. Written in August-September 1917, in the lead-up to the Bolshevik Revolution of November 7, 1917 (October 25 in the old Russian calendar), it was not published until 1918.

Lenin’s purpose in writing this work was, as he stated at the beginning of chapter 1, to clearly demonstrate the “unprecedentedly widespread distortion of Marxism” on the question of the state and the proletarian revolution then prevailing in the international socialist movement by re-establishing what Marx and Engels themselves had written on this subject. Most of the book therefore takes the form of an extended commentary, with extensive quotations, on the writings of Marx and Engels. It then deals with the person “who is chiefly responsible for these distortions”, namely, Karl Kautsky, the editor of Neue Zeit, the theoretical journal of the German Social-Democratic Party (SPD) and the best-known leader of the Second International, the international association of socialist parties founded in Paris in 1889.

A final chapter, discussing the lessons of the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, was never written. As Lenin notes in his postscript to the first edition (written on November 30, 1917):

Apart from the title, I had no time to write a single line of the chapter; I was “interrupted” by a political crisis — the eve of the October revolution of 1917. Such an “interruption” can only be welcomed … It is more pleasant and useful to go through the “experience of the revolution” than to write about it.1

Lenin first indicated the need for a theoretical treatment of the question of the state and the proletarian revolution in late 1916 while still in exile in Switzerland.

In August 1916, Nikolai Bukharin, one of the younger leaders of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (he had joined the Bolshevik faction of the party as a 17-year-old high-school student during the 1905 revolution), had submitted an article — “On the Theory of the Imperialist State” — for publication in the Bolshevik magazine Sbornik Sotsial-Demokrata. In this article, Bukharin had argued that “Social-Democracy must intensively underline its hostility in principle to the state power”.

In a letter to Bukharin, Lenin rejected publication of the article on the grounds that this formulation was “either supremely inexact, or incorrect”, noting that at the end of his article Bukharin had affirmed the need for the proletariat to create “its own provisional state organisation of power”.2 In a note to the co-editor of the journal, Grigory Zinoviev, Lenin stated that the “political part” of Bukharin’s article was “quite incomplete, not thought out, useless”.3

Bukharin then had his article published, under the title “The Imperialist Robber State” and using the pseudonym “Nota-Bene”, in the sixth (December 1, 1916) issue of the Swiss journal of the International League of Socialist Youth Organisations, Jugend-Internationale.

In the December 1916 issue of Sbornik Sotsial-Demokrata, Lenin wrote a review of Jugend-Internationale in which he criticised Bukharin’s article for, firstly, misrepresenting the differences between the anarchists and the Marxists in their attitude toward state power, and secondly, for arguing that Marxists had to “emphasise” their “hostility to the state in principle”.

In his article Bukharin had argued that it “is absolutely wrong to seek the difference between socialists and anarchists in the fact that the former are in favour of the state while the latter are against it. The real difference is that revolutionary Social-Democracy desires to organise social production on new lines, as centralised, i.e., technically the most progressive, method of production, whereas decentralised, anarchist production would mean retrogression to obsolete techniques, to the old form of enterprise”. Criticising this argument, Lenin wrote:

This is wrong. The author raises the question of the difference in the socialists’ and anarchists’ attitude towards the state. However, he answers not this question, but another, namely, the difference in their attitude towards the economic foundation of future society. That, of course, is an important and necessary question. But that is no reason to ignore the main point of difference between socialists and anarchists in their attitude towards the state. 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 anarchists want to “abolish” the state, “blow it up” (sprengen) as Comrade Nota-Bene expresses it in one place, erroneously ascribing this view to the socialists.

The socialists — unfortunately the author quotes Engels’s relevant words rather incompletely — hold that the state will “wither away”, will gradually “fall asleep” after the bourgeoisie has been expropriated. 4

Elsewhere in his article Bukharin had argued that “Social-Democracy, which is, or at least should be, the educator 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 the workers”. In response, Lenin wrote:

In order to “emphasise” our “hostility” to the state “in principle” we must indeed understand it “clearly”, and it is this clarity that our author lacks. His remark about the “state idea” is entirely muddled. It is un-Marxist and un-socialist. The point is not that the “state idea” has clashed with the repudiation of the state, but that opportunist policy (i.e., the opportunist, reformist, bourgeois attitude towards the state) has clashed with revolutionary Social-Democratic policy (i.e., 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.5 

Over the next two months Lenin made an intensive study of the works of Marx and Engels, as well as those of Kautsky, on the question of the state and the proletarian revolution. In a letter to Aleksandra Kollontai dated February 17, 1917, he wrote: I am preparing (have almost got the material ready) an article on the question of the attitude of Marxism to the state. I have come to conclusions which are even sharper against Kautsky than against Bukharin (have you seen his “Nota Bene” in No. 6 of Jugend-Internationale? and Sbornik Sotsial-Demokrata No. 2?). The question is exceptionally important. Bukharin is far better than Kautsky, but Bukharin’s mistakes may destroy this “just cause” in the struggle against Kautskyanism.6 Two days later, in a letter to Inessa Armand, Lenin wrote: I have been putting in a lot of study recently on the question of the attitude of Marxism to the state; I have collected a lot of material and arrived, it seems to me, at very interesting and important conclusions, much more against Kautsky than against N. Iv. Bukharin (who, however, is not right all the same, though nearer to the truth than Kautsky). I would terribly much like to write about this: perhaps publish No. 4 of Sbornik Sotsial-Demokrata with Bukharin’s article and with my discussion of his little mistakes and Kautsky’s big lying and vulgarisation of Marxism.7

This plan, however, was interrupted by the outbreak of the February Revolution in Russia. In July 1917, when he was forced by the repression unleashed by Aleksandr Kerensky’s Provisional Government to go into hiding, he wrote a note to Lev Kamenev:

Entre nous: if they do get me, I ask you to publish my notebook: Marxism and the State (it got left behind in Stockholm). It’s bound in a blue cover. It contains a collection of all the quotations from Marx and Engels, likewise from Kautsky against Pannekoek.

There are a number of remarks and notes, and formulations. I think it could be published after a week’s work. I believe it to be important, because not only Plekhanov but also Kautsky have bungled things.8

While in hiding after the July crackdown against the Bolsheviks, Lenin obtained and used the material in the notebook to write The State and Revolution.

Lenin’s central accusation against Kautsky was that, while Kautsky claimed to be a Marxist, he had abandoned the very heart of Marxism, i.e., the necessity for the “dictatorship of the proletariat” as the transitional form of political power through which a classless, socialist society could be achieved.9

The term was first used by Marx in The Struggles in France, 1848-1850 (written in late 1849 and early 1850) to convey the idea that, in order to liberate itself from oppression, the working class could not rely upon reforms within the framework of the bourgeois-democratic parliamentary republic, but would have to constitute itself as a state power and forcibly suppress the resistance of the capitalist class. In contrasting the doctrinaire petty-bourgeois socialism of Louis Blanc, of the “so­called party of social-democracy” — which proclaimed itself “the means of emancipating the proletariat and the emancipation of the latter as its object” — with revolutionary socialism, with Communism, Marx pointed out that the latter was distinguished by its “declaration of the permanence of the revolution, the class dictatorship of the proletariat as the necessary transit point to the abolition of class distinctions generally, to the abolition of all the relations of production upon which they rest, to the abolition of all the social relations that correspond to these relations of production, to the revolutionising of all the ideas that result from these social relations”.10

Nowhere in Marxist writing supporting this idea will one find the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” described in terms of the rule of a bureaucratic elite associated with regimes like those established in the Soviet Union under Stalin or China under Mao. To the contrary, for Marx, Engels and Lenin the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” signified the organisation of the majority of the population — the working people — as the ruling class.

Marx, Engels and Lenin all argued that this could not occur through parliamentary structures, through a national assembly of directly elected representatives, since these, by their very nature, left the working majority unorganised and the actual administration of state power in the hands of a bureaucracy consisting of unelected, privileged officials. It was therefore necessary for the working class to create its own institutions of political power — a people’s militia commanded by elected officers drawn from the ranks of the working people themselves and accountable to a centralised system of elected delegates who would combine legislative with executive functions, who would be subject to immediate recall by those who elected them and who would be paid no more than the average received by a skilled worker. At the base of this hierarchy of congresses of elected delegates, power would be exercised directly by working people themselves through workplace and neighbourhood meetings.

Marx, Engels and Lenin based their ideas on how the proletarian revolutionary state would be organised upon the example of the revolutionary democracy created by the Parisian working people in March 1871.

Following the surrender in September 1870 by Emperor Napoleon III and his standing army to the victorious invading Prussian army, the Parisian workers and small proprietors had carried out insurrectionary demonstrations. Taking advantage of these demonstrations, the bourgeois republicans formed a provisional Government of National Defence, proclaimed a republic, and authorised the enlistment of 384,000 Parisians into 254 neighbourhood battalions. As a consequence, the workers and small proprietors of Paris had effectively been armed. Moreover, since traditionally officers in the National Guard up to battalion level were elected, there soon existed in Paris an armed organisation of working people with officers elected primarily because of their prestige as revolutionary leaders.

Once an armistice was concluded between the bourgeois-republican government of France and the Prussian army in January 1871, the Parisian National Guard units increasingly defied the police, the army chief-of-staff and the commanding officers the latter had appointed for the Guard. Simultaneously, these units of the Guard constituted themselves into a Federation of the National Guard, with its own elected Central Committee as ultimate authority rather than the army chief-of-staff or the national government.

By March 13, 215 out of the 270 listed battalions of the National Guard had adhered to the Federation’s statutes and thus assumed an insurrectionary stance toward the army chief-of-staff and the bourgeois-republican government, which was now constituted through a parliamentary National Assembly elected on February 8.

On March 18, the National Assembly deserted Paris for Versailles as the seat of national government, demanded payment of rents and commercial bills suspended during the Prussian siege of Paris and sent regular-army units to seize and remove the artillery pieces held by the National Guard. However, these soldiers, instead, fraternised with the National Guard, and executed the general who had ordered them to fire into the demonstrating crowds of Parisian working people. Adolphe Thiers, the National Assembly’s “Head of Executive Power”, then ordered all government officials to leave Paris for Versailles; this left the Central Committee of the National Guard in control of the city. It immediately arranged for elections for a Commune de Paris modelled upon the revolutionary-democratic government created in Paris under the leadership of the Jacobins in August 1792.

These elections took place on March 26, with 229,000 Parisians participating. The Communal government consisted of delegates elected from each of 20 arrondissements (wards) in the city. These delegates in turn elected various commissions to conduct the city’s administration. Thus all officials were elected and recallable by their electors. To combat careerism all officials were paid no more than an ordinary skilled worker’s wage.

The Paris Commune lasted for two months. The failure of its leaders to launch a military offensive against the bourgeois national government in Versailles enabled the government to rebuild its standing army and to launch a successful military assault on the city on May 21, 1871. In the aftermath of the defeat of the Commune, the bourgeois government ordered the summary execution of between 20,000 and 30,000 suspected Commune supporters. The ferocity of the repression was so great that even the London Times protested against the “inhuman laws of revenge under which the Versailles troops have been shooting, bayonetting, ripping up prisoners, women and children during the last six days”.11

In light of the experience of the Paris Commune, Marx and Engels argued that the working class could only conquer political power by “smashing the bureaucratic-military machine” and representative institutions of the bourgeois state — which they argued was simply a hidden dictatorship of the bourgeoisie — and by replacing them with a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat, modelled after the Commune. In his 1891 introduction to Marx’s 1871 commentaries on the Paris Commune — The Civil War in France — Engels, for example, pointed out that the Commune had demonstrated how the working class could “shatter” the existing bourgeois state power and replace it with “a new and truly democratic one”. He added:


Of late, the Social-Democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the words: Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. This was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.12

By contrast, beginning with his 1902 book The Social Revolution, Kautsky, while referring to the revolutionary “conquest of political power” by the proletariat, dropped any mention of the dictatorship of the proletariat and of the task of destroying the existing bourgeois state power, including its parliamentary institutions. Instead, he argued that “Parliamentarism is in need of a revolution in order to become viable again”.13

For Kautsky, democracy — the rule of the people — was inconceivable without a parliamentary form of government. Hence, a working-class democracy would come into being only through the victory of socialists in a parliamentary election. He spelt this reformist view out explicitly in 1912 when he wrote in Neue Zeit that “under no circumstances” could a mass strike by the proletariat “lead to the destruction of the state power; it can lead only to a certain shifting of the balance of forces within the state power”, adding:

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 rank of master of the government.14

Herein lay Kautsky’s “opportunist distortion of Marxism”. Evidently, for Kautsky parliament was a supra-class institution that could be filled with a “revolutionary proletarian” content. The “revolutionary seizure of state power” meant for Kautsky the election through parliament of a government consisting of socialists. The task of socialists was not to educate and organise the working class to constitute itself as a power, but to wait for power to be taken on its behalf by socialist parliamentarians, who would direct the bureaucratic machinery of the existing state power to “liberate” the working class from capitalism.

In opposition to this reformist and fundamentally bureaucratic conception of “revolution” (in reality an attempt to give a pseudo-Marxist justification for the SPD leadership’s subservience to bourgeois class rule), Lenin, following Marx and Engels, reaffirmed the central tenet of scientific socialism: the emancipation of the working class from capitalist rule must be conquered by the working class itself.



The abbreviation LCW has been used below for: V.I. Lenin, Collected Works (Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1964-1970).

1              See this edition, p. 100

2              LCW, Vol. 35, p. 231

3              ibid., p. 228

4              LCW, Vol. 23, p. 165

5              ibid., p. 166

6              LCW, Vol. 35, p. 286

7              ibid., p. 289

8              LCW, Vol. 36, p. 454

9              Lenin used the term “socialism” to denote the lower, first stage of the classless, “communist” society. Marx and Engels had called themselves Communists in the 1840s because at that time the term “socialist” was widely associated with anyone who advocated amelioration or eradication of class inequalities through gradual reforms to the existing capitalist social order, while the term “communist” was associated with the advocates of achieving social equality through a social revolution. When, in the 1880s, the term “socialist” became identified with all those who stood for combating the social evils created by capitalism through the abolition of private ownership of the means of production and its replacement by social ownership, Marx and Engels began to use the terms “socialist” and “communist” interchangeably. They distinguished the revolutionary proletarian-socialism they stood for from various petty-bourgeois utopian-sectarian socialist doctrines by calling it scientific socialism.

10            K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 1 (Progress Publishers: Moscow 1977), pp. 280-82

11            Cited in Eugen Schulkind (ed.), The Paris Commune of 1871: The View from the Left (Jonathan Cape: London 1972), p. 27

12            K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 3 (Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1977), pp. 188-89. It should be noted that while Marx described the Paris Commune as “essentially a working-class government” (p. 223), by this he meant that it had discovered the “political form … under which to work out the economic emancipation of labour”, not that it could have done so. In a letter written in 1881, Marx observed that the Paris Commune “was merely the rising of a city under exceptional circumstances, the majority of the Commune was by no means socialist, nor could it be. With a modicum of common sense, however, it could have reached a compromise with Versailles useful to the whole mass of the people — the only thing that was possible to reach at the time. The appropriation of the Bank of France would have been quite enough to put an end with terror to the vaunt of the Versailles people” (see K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Correspondence [Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1975], p. 318).

13            Cited in V.I. Lenin, Marxism on the State (Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1972), p. 68

14            Cited in V.I. Lenin, Marxism on the State, p. 78