Socialist Reading Series I: The State and Revolution [Part 6]
This is the final chapter of TSaR, and, sadly, it makes for a rather anti-climactic one since it ends up being just more internal fighting between different revolutionaries (Lenin never finished the pamphlet since the Russian Revolution broke out while he was writing the final chapter). Aside from that, the other thing of note is that some of the stuff that Lenin says here seems to challenge my earlier understanding of a 'smashed' state, so either my understanding is off, or Lenin is being inconsistent. I'll point to that as it comes up. In any case, for the sake of completion, let's finish chapter 6!
After this post, I'll do one extra one summarizing what I take to be the big takeaways from this pamphlet (a kind of reader's digest version of this first series) and then turn to either reading Mao or Engels' "The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State".
Chapter VI: The Vulgarization of Marxism by the Opportunists
Plekhanov's Controversy with the Anarchists
Ostensibly, this chapter is supposed to be a discussion of how the most prominent theoreticians of Marxism have distorted his teachings. In reality, it ends up being mostly a tirade against Kautsky with Plekhanov getting only this first tiny section covering barely a page.
Lenin's frustration with Plekhanov is, simply put, that he wrote a pamphlet on 'anarchism and Socialism' without bringing up the question of revolution and the role of the state even once. This by itself "is a victory for opportunism" (pg. 125)
I have virtually nothing to say on this and it strikes me as pretty damn petty. Maybe more knowledge of Plekhanov's work would change my mind, but as it stands, the very brief commentary and one-line argument against Plekhanov is pretty lame.
2. Kautsky's Controversy with the Opportunists
The bigger target of Lenin's vitriol is Kautsky, whom Lenin repeatedly accuses of opportunism on the question of the state. Lenin provides several examples of this opportunism. The first is Kautsky's work against Bernstein's Premises of Socialism. There, Bernstein seizes on Marx's claim from The Communist Manifesto that "the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes" to claim that this was a warning from Marx against revolutionary zeal and promoting incrementalism (i.e. "you can't just seize things, you've got to work within the system!"). Lenin has already argued why this is decisively not what Marx meant and that this is a distortion. Kautsky, too, took issue with Bernstein's interpretation, but Lenin's problem is that Kautsky's criticism of Bernstein misses the point. In short, Kautsky's claim is that Marx meant that one can't simply lay hold of the state machine, but that this isn't enough. For Lenin, the fact that Kautsky doesn't point out the fact that Bernstein is arguing for the very opposite of Marx's point is tantamount to a fundamental concession to Bernstein, and, hence, a massive distortion of doctrine.
A second example of Kautsky's opportunism can be found in his pamphlet, The Social Revolution. Here, again, Lenin says Kautsky avoids the question of the state. The problem here is, once again, the fact that Kautsky doesn't make explicit what the proletariat needs to do in the revolution. "By avoiding this question, Kautsky in practice makes a concession to opportunism on this most essential point, although in words he declares stern war against it and emphasizes the importance of the 'idea of revolution' (how much is this 'idea' worth when one is afraid to teach the workers the concrete lessons of revolution?), or says 'revolutionary idealism before everything else', or announces that the English workers are now 'hardly more than petty bourgeois.'" (pg. 130). In essence, Lenin's claim is that Kautsky's arguments amount to opportunism by omission.
More concretely, Lenin also takes issue with Kautsky's remarks on the nature of bureaucracy. In short, Kautsky thinks that it's impossible to do without bureaucracy in certain contexts, that, consequently, bureaucracy is inevitable, so that part of the tasks of the proletariat is to take over that bureaucratic machinery.
This, as we know, is not Lenin's view. It is not the case that the proletariat simply takes over the bourgeois bureaucracy and makes sure that it works in the interest of the workers. Rather, it smashes and rebuilds the machinery such that it preserves a semblance of management while at the same time eliminating bureaucracy by making sure that, in essence, everyone performs the function of a bureaucrat ("all shall become 'bureaucrats' for a time and that, therefore, nobody may be able to become a 'bureaucrat'." pg. 131). In essence, what will be removed is bureaucracy as a kind of class apart from society while preserving the bureaucratic functions that make operation of enterprises possible.
The mistake that Kautsky makes, claims Lenin, is not understanding the difference between bourgeois parliamentarism and proletarian democracy; the former "combines democracy (not for the people) with bureaucracy (against the people)" while the latter "will take immediately steps to cut bureaucracy down to the roots, and which will be able to carry out these measures to the end, to the complete abolition of bureaucracy, to the introduction of complete democracy for the people." (pg. 132) In essence, this amounts to "the same old 'superstitious reverence' for the state, and 'superstitious belief' in bureaucracy." (pg. 132)
Finally, Lenin discusses Kautsky's pamphlet, The Road to Power, which, while an improvement in comparison to the previous pamphlets insofar as it takes seriously the arrival of a new era of revolutions, still displeases Lenin. More specifically, what angers him is still the perpetual fact that although Kautsky makes a big deal about talking about revolution, he never actually picks up the question of the state as it relates to this forthcoming revolution. Thus, Lenin summarizes his frustration with Kautsky as follows:
German Social-Democracy, in the person of Kautsky, seems to have declared: I adhere to revolutionary views (1899), I recognize, in particular the inevitability of the social revolution of the proletariat (1902), I recognize the advent of a new era of revolutions (1909). Still, I am going back on what Marx said as early as 1852 now that the question of the tasks of the proletarian revolution in relation to the state is being raised (1912).
Lenin, The State and Revolution pg. 133
There's more in this section than in the previous section on Plekhanov, but here, again, I'm afraid more knowledge of Kautsky's work would be needed to understand the validity of Lenin's arguments.
Two things are worth pointing out though. In the first place, granting that I don't have the full context, I find Lenin's argument of opportunism by omission unconvincing. Just because a particular line of argument isn't pursued in a discussion does not mean that the person who omits this line of argument doesn't believe it or disavows it. One tends to tailor one's arguments to the audience that one is addressing and to the topics that are most relevant to the discussion at hand. Since that's the case, I think relatively little can be gathered from the fact that Kautsky doesn't bring up exactly the points that Lenin thinks are important in criticizing Bernstein. The most that can be read from this, I think, is that Kautsky didn't think Lenin's argument was the most relevant or important thing to consider, but that's about it. Lenin is making the asshole mistake of assuming that if his opponent doesn't explicitly make the same point that he does, then the opponent can't possibly understand or agree with that point.
Now, of course, Lenin's claim would likely be that Marx's lesson is so simple and so clear that anyone who claims to be a Marxist can't fail to grasp what Lenin has grasped without being disingenuous or misinformed. But that strikes me as uh...implausible. There's very little in Marx that's just that obvious.
The second thing to note is that this section poses a challenge to my understanding of what it means to 'smash' the state. I've been arguing that Lenin has been using the term so far in a technical sense: to smash x is to deprive x of its primary function. This interpretation let me make sense of some of the claims that Lenin was making earlier in the pamphlet. Yet, here, we have Lenin making claims like the following:
The workers, having conquered political power, will smash the old bureaucratic apparatus, they will shatter it to its very foundations, they will destroy it to the very roots; at they will replace it by a new one, consisting of the very same workers and office employees, against whose transformation into bureaucrats the measures will at once be taken which were specified in detail by Marx and Engels
Lenin, The State and Revolution, 133
Notably, Lenin here isn't talking about the deprivation of the function of the old state machinery, but explicitly about its complete destruction and its replacement by a new machinery. And that's in complete odds with my standing hypothesis. I suppose that there is a sense in which my reading is still compatible with this quote insofar as one might think that to remove the function of the state just is to "shatter it to its very foundations" and insofar as the building up of the new machine just is running a machine that has a different function. But I'm skeptical. It's also possible that Lenin is just inconsistent in how we talks about the destruction of the state, but this, too, would be surprising (or embarrassing) given how central of a theme this is in the pamphlet.
In short, I'll have to revisit why I was so convinced of my initial take before I make a final judgment on this.
3. Kautsky's Controversy with Pannekoek
Finally, Lenin picks up a left challenge to Kautsky from Pannekoek (a left communist who ran with Luxemburg: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonie_Pannekoek) who argued that the task of the proletariat is not simply to take the instruments of state power but to completely destroy the existing state.
In response, Kautsky claims that "up to now the difference between the Social-Democrats and the anarchists has been that the former wished to conquer state power while the latter wished to destroy it. Pannekoek wants to do both." (pg. 135; Lenin quoting Kautsky). This is doubly frustrating for Lenin because, as we've seen, this is not what he takes to be the difference between anarchists and socialists, and, furthermore, because this kind of response amounts to opportunism on behalf of Kautsky.
Lenin once again reminds us of the difference between Marxists and anarchists. In the first place, both aim at completely abolishing the state but the former know that this can't be done without some transition period, while the latter simply aim to get rid of the state overnight. In the second place, Marxists understand the need to substitute a new state machinery while destroying the old machinery while the anarchists offer no guidance as to what to put in its place or how to wield revolutionary power once they have it. And in the third place, Marxists "demand that the proletariat be prepared for revolution by utilizing the present state" while anarchists do not.
In essence, by mincing words and equating 'conquest' of the existing state power with the wielding of a simple majority within the state rather than with a complete destruction of the state, Kautsky abandons Marx and retreats to what's most advantageous at the moment; i.e. advocating for a kind of simple seizure of state power within the existing system.
Kautsky's reply is in essence a return to the previous claim regarding the necessity of the bureaucracy and of officials. If even the SD party needs officials, then it's simply ridiculous to claim that, given the current state of affairs, the opposition from the party should be one that demands their removal or the destruction of bureaucracy. To argue otherwise (I take it given his earlier comments re: anarchy) is to advocate an anarchist position and not a Marxist one.
To Lenin this is simply a trick. The question is one of revolution and its relation to the state and in Kautsky's responses there is simply no mention of revolution at all.
The point is not at all whether the "ministries" will remain, or whether "committees of specialists" or some other institutions will be set up; that is quite unimportant. The point is whether the old state machine (bound by thousands of threads to the bourgeoisie and permeated through and through with routine and inertia) shall remain, or be destroyed and replaced by a new one.Revolution consists not in the new class commanding, governing with the aid of the old state machine, but in this class smashing this machine and commanding, governing with the aid of a new machine.
Lenin, The State and Revolution, pg. 137-138
It's true, claims Lenin, that we don't get along without officials even in the party, but this is because the conditions of capitalism make it such. Once the revolution is complete we will be able to do without such a class, precisely if we take the steps that Marx and Engels say were shown in the actions of the Commune. If it seems as though bureaucracy is necessary it's only because capitalism has created this illusion--once socialism is on the scene this illusion will disappear since (to repeat the perennial refrain of the pamphlet) anyone and everyone will be capable of governing and anyone and everyone will become used to living with no one governing.
Both the opportunist and the anarchist misunderstand this point. The opportunists shy away from the task of revolution and come up with excuses for why revolution must be curtailed and held back; the anarchist embraces the revolution and the destruction of the state but doesn't care at all about any of the concrete problems that must be solved in order to do that or what is to replace the destroyed state. The true Marxist, of course, navigates the path between both of these by not only embracing the revolution, but also understanding the minutia and details needed to make it happen.
Thus, Lenin ends by noting that there must be a decisive break with both opportunists and anarchists and an embrace of the only true and correct path towards socialism.
[There are some closing remarks about other challenges from the right, but they neither seem important, nor fully fleshed out to warrant discussion]
What's been said in the last two sections can be repeated here. In the first place, I would need to know more about the particular disagreement between Kautsky and Pannekoek to weigh in on whether Kautsky is being an opportunist or whether Lenin is just being wildly uncharitable. I should say that the evidence Lenin musters here is slightly more convincing since he actually brings in some positive claims from Kautsky against which he argues rather than inferring opportunism through omission. However, perhaps because I have very strong reservations about Lenin's own views on the nature of bureaucracy (ones I've brought up over and over again), I'm leaning more in favor of Kautsky here. In short, I'm just not convinced that some kind of hierarchical organizational structure isn't necessary regardless of the conditions under which the organization exists. Lenin's claim appears to be that the very nature of how people operate in groups changes in the socialist society such that it doesn't require any mediation. That may very well be the case, but, as I see it, the evidence for that claim is nothing short of a firm commitment to a kind of utopian future. But maybe I'm just being an opportunist :p