The State and Revolution: Main Takeaways
I realize that reading through six massive posts about this little pamphlet is probably asking too much for anyone who's...well, sane. So, I thought I would sum up the book in a short, tidy little digestible post along with highlights of things that I found to be particularly interesting. If you want my in-depth takes on specifics, consult those massive posts. Here we go!
The central aim of the pamphlet is to provide an answer to the question "what should the Marxist's stance to the state be?" Lenin's answer is unequivocal: the goal of the true Marxist revolutionary should be to smash the bourgeois state and replace it with a dictatorship of the proletariat which amounts to a pseudo-state during the transition period between Capitalism and Communism. He argues that this is what Marx and Engels themselves advocate for, that this is backed by a proper understanding of Marxism, and that all alternative interpretations are opportunist distortions of scientific socialism.
What is the state?
Following Engels, Lenin's position is that the state emerges to contain or suppress irreconcilable antagonisms between classes which arise through the division of labor and the distribution of excess production. By moderating conflict, it perpetuates the oppression of one class by another, and is hence, always a tool of the oppressing class.
How and why does the state oppress?
The state is able to function as such a tool because because it has special means of oppression at its disposal that are denied to the lower classes. Specifically, it is the only body that is granted the legitimate use of arms, violence, and imprisonment of individuals. These means of oppression are turned against the dispossessed majority in favor of the elite minority to keep class conflict from erupting into violence and to prevent the majority from taking what the minority keeps from them.
How does this happen? Well, in order for the state to operate, it requires the existence of a functioning bureaucracy peopled with officials who run it and who are placed above and apart from the rest of society. In turn, these officials are quickly bought off by the most economically advantaged class to work in its interests.
What is the fate of the state?
The proletarian revolution will seize the means of production, and, as a result, resolve all class antagonisms, and with that, remove the need for a state. The state will be 'smashed' during the revolution, and following that, the people will enter a transition period marked by the dictatorship of the (armed) proletariat during which the state will gradually wither away and disappear.
Will this entail violence?
Necessarily. In the first place, because the state is necessarily violent and will not relinquish its power willingly, overthrowing it and smashing it will require violence (and arms). And in the second place, because all oppression is a kind of violence and the bourgeoisie will have to be oppressed after the revolution, violence will also be necessary (they can, of course, avoid this, by relinquishing their private property and joining the revolution).
What does it mean for the state to 'wither away'?
It means that the state qua bourgeois state--qua tool of class oppression--is immediately abolished but that a kind of husk of a state run by the proletariat remains in its place to guard against counterrevolution and to keep things running smoothly until the transition period between capitalism and Communism is complete.
Crucially, along with the withering away of the state, democracy will also disappear.
Why would democracy disappear?
Lenin here is speaking of democracy in two different ways. In the first way, he's speaking of democracy as a kind of codified institution through which the state operates. This is the sense in which, for example, the United States is a democracy since it guarantees the right to vote and elect representatives to a Congress and so on. This kind of democracy will be overcome and disappear with the revolution. It will be so because this kind of democracy was never (and has never been) genuine democracy--it has always benefited some people over others and has never really been guaranteed fully to everyone (a look at the history and present state of the US is enough to confirm that). Rather, this kind of democracy has always been a symptom of bourgeois rule.
The second sense in which Lenin speaks of democracy could be called something like genuine or pure democracy of absolute rule by the people. This won't disappear (because it's never existed), but it will be something that can and will only be realized during Communism. For the transitional period of socialism, however, it, too, won't be in effect. This is because full, genuine democracy applies to literally everyone, and the transitional period will be one of explicitly suppressing the rights of the bourgeoisie in the political arena. This is one sense in which the transition period will be marked by a dictatorship of the proletariat. And, obviously, if one is under a dictatorship, one is not in a democracy.
Once all bourgeois tendencies have been eliminated by expropriating private property and putting it in the hands of the proletariat as common property and socializing the next generation, democracy in the second sense will arrive on the scene.
When is the withering away complete?
This is a matter of several factors: technology, education, and habituation. Lenin holds that the pace of technology is such that it is set to make the running of any and all enterprises a matter of having basic literacy. Once that technology arrives and once the population is educated they will be able to harness the productive forces of capitalism for the good of all people. This period will still be overseen by the dictatorship of the proletariat since people will not be used to living in a way in which everyone governs. However, as a new generation is socialized and grows up under these conditions, its members will learn how to operate without any governance. When that happens, the state will completely wither away.
How long this would actually take cannot be known in advance. However, Lenin seems convinced that the technological advances needed to make this happen are already in place in Western Europe. If communists in that part of the world are able to have a revolution, then they can drastically reduce the transitional period in other countries as they share their knowledge elsewhere. In those places of the world in which the technology is not quite as advanced (i.e. Russia) there can still be a revolution, and there can still be a dictatorship of the proletariat, but, presumably, the transition period between capitalism and Communism will be much longer as the less-advanced countries try to catch up.
How is the state 'smashed'?
I've put forward the argument that 'to smash' the state is to deprive it of its essential function--i.e. to smash the state is to prevent it from being a tool of class oppression for the bourgeoisie. This is primarily done by implementing four reforms: arming all the workers, abolishing the standing army, making all officials elected and subject to recall, and lowering their wages to those of working people.
By doing this, any privilege held by state actors will be removed; in essence, it will be impossible to improve one's lot in life (by being bought off by the bourgeois) by going into state work. Furthermore, as stated before, technological advances of capital organization will make the running of any enterprise (including the state) so simple that anyone could be a state official, so, essentially, anyone and everyone will be capable of doing the work which is now used as means of turning the state into a tool of oppression.
[Translation aside: there's a distinction in Bulgarian between ' Смачкан ' and 'разбит' where the former is more closely tied to being crushed or smooshed and the latter to destroyed or broken. Both could be arguably translated as “smashed” in English. Something that is crushed may still function in some respect, but something that is destroyed or broken, arguably, can't. The English 'smashed' often implies more of the latter--to smash a vase is to destroy it completely. I wonder if there's a similar distinction in Russian and if so, whether the original word Lenin uses is closer to 'crush' or to 'destroy']
What will the future of communism look like?
Impossible to say. The most we can work out is what the transition period of socialism will look like. Part of that picture has already been covered--there will be an armed dictatorship of the proletariat that suppresses the bourgeoisie and which seizes the means of production and makes all previously held private property into common property for the benefit of all; there will be a smashed state that will be peopled by the armed proletariat which will eventually wither away and whose function will be different from that of the bourgeois state.
However, we also learn three more things: first, that the main function of this new state (apart from keeping the interests of capital out) will be to oversee and account for the common goods, and whose task it will be to distribute them to where they're needed. Second, we learn that the nation will be centralized such that all of its separate states/regions/departments will work towards the same central goal of providing for everyone. And, finally, we learn that with enough time people will get used to living in a world in which everyone governs collectively so that, eventually, even this kind of bureaucratic middle management won't be necessary.
What about all the people who disagree?
They're either anarchists, opportunists, or idiots.
What's the difference between anarchists and Marxists?
The two groups have the same goal of abolishing the state, but whereas the anarchists are focused on simply destroying the state overnight with no plan to put anything in its place and no theory of how the power seized by the revolution will be handled, the Marxists are under no such delusions. Rather, Marxists recognize the necessity of a temporary period during which a smashed state is a practical and theoretical necessity and they offer a detailed plan about what should be done during that period.
In short, anarchists are too utopian and narrowly focused, while Marxists are practical-minded 'scientists' of history (or whatever).
Who are the opportunists?
Anyone who claims to be a Marxist but who argues for incrementalism, working within the bourgeois state for reform, or who rejects the need for a violent revolution. They're opportunists because they either don't understand Marx (in which case, they're also likely to be put in the idiot category), or because they do understand him, but are willing to sacrifice the long term goal of Communism for a short-term goal of minor reform.
Who are the idiots?
Pretty much anyone who isn't a Marxist or who has disagreed with Lenin (includes most of the previous two categories).
What should I do now?
I don't know, man.
Some Key Takeaways
1: Lenin's dependence on Marx and Engels
Virtually all of Lenin's arguments rest on Marx and Engels' (and here mostly Engels') theory of the state. If Engels is wrong about the genealogy of the state, or if he's wrong about its function, then most of what Lenin has to say about why the state must be destroyed and why it must be replaced with a dictatorship of the proletariat fall to the side.
If, for example, the state is not necessarily a tool of class oppression, then it might be possible to figure out under what conditions it ceases to be such. More moderate parties, then, could advocate for these kinds of reforms rather than for an armed insurrection against the state. This might leave them some breathing room on Lenin's right flank.
Similarly, if it's possible for the state itself to have its own interests apart from classes, then this might leave some room for opponents on Lenin's left flank. Lenin is very heavily leveraged in the idea that cutting down the privileges of state functionaries in terms of prestige and financial remuneration is enough to keep the bureaucracy from being a focal point for corruption and class betrayal. However, arguably, he severely underestimates how prestige can still flow to an appointed position in terms of non-material privileges. If this is possible, then the state can still continue to be a tool of oppression--perhaps not one of oppression by the bourgeoisie against the proletariat, but, say, one of the state against...well, anyone.
In short, Lenin's view depends on he (and Engels and Marx) having the precise and correct understanding of how the state works. Little deviations in either direction make big difference to the plausibility of his argument.
2: Lenin's view of psychology, bureaucracy, and technology
Lenin has some really weird empirical commitments about the complexity of bureaucracy, the nature of technological advances, and the psychology of people in general. They also tend to be pretty simplistic and kind of naive.
One of the assumptions about bureaucracy were touched on in the last section; viz. that it sets people who populate it apart from others by virtue of the financial opportunities it provides them and by virtue of the social advantages they gather thereby. However, he also assumes 1) that the complexity of bureaucratic tasks is a function of the amount of suppression needed, such that a very complex bureaucratic machinery is needed in order to suppress the majority by the minority (and conversely, that a very simple machine is needed for the majority to oppress the minority), and 2) that the complexity of bureaucratic tasks decreases as technological advances increase.
Both of these claims strike me as suspect. I suppose there's some sense in which 1) might be correct insofar as a jail that houses 1 million people needs a much more complex infrastructure than one that houses ten people. But much more is needed to make that into a general claim regarding state bureaucracy.
Regarding 2), the only sense in which I can see it as unquestionably true is also the most trivial one. If we assume that the tasks that need to be done in the present are the only tasks that will ever need to be done, then it's true--it's much easier to do a census in the present day than it was a hundred years ago. But it seems obvious that new bureaucratic tasks constantly arise along with advances in technology. What Lenin needs is the further claim that we will eventually get to a point where the progress of technology will necessarily outpace the need for new bureaucratic tasks. But I haven't seen an argument for that claim, and I'm not sure what it would look like (maybe some people who work in AI have a better sense of how that could happen).
His views on technology are similarly bizarre since they, too, assume a kind of unbounded frontier of possibilities and go hand in hand with his views on the nature of bureaucracy. I suppose they're a bit more plausible given things like Moore's Law of processing power, but I'm still skeptical that the problems that we face will always have a technocratic solution. Of course, Lenin's claim is not that this will always be the case, but rather that the problems he faced in 1916 already had a technological solution that was available at the time. Nevertheless, the problem remains just in case there is a time in the future during which there is a problem that is not solvable through technological advances. This could happen if, as mentioned, there are certain specific problems that outrun the advance of technology, but also if there are other problems that are independent of technological solutions. Such problems may very well exist, and, as someone who's steeped into a certain tradition of philosophy, I'm inclined to think that they do exist. Now, that by itself doesn't show a fatal problem with Lenin's view--maybe those problems aren't important--but that has to be argued for and defended.
Finally, I'm also really skeptical about Lenin's views of psychology. In essence, Lenin is a pure behaviorist about human psychology. He holds that anyone who has been socialized under certain conditions will accept those conditions as acceptable and come to see them as normal. While I do think that this view is closer to the truth about human psychology than, say, a view that claims there are substantial innate and immutable ways of thinking, I do think that the pure behaviorist view he has in mind (and upon which the future of Communism rests) cannot possibly be right. The big question, then, is whether the ways in which I think it's wrong are at odds with the long-term plan Lenin envisions.
Here, I'm not exactly sure what to say. I don't think that human beings are the blank slate that Lenin presents them to be. However, that doesn't mean that I think the kind of transformation that Lenin takes to be necessary for Communism is impossible. Rather, I think if it's possible, it's going to take much longer than a generation or two to achieve. Human psychology is malleable, but it has a long shadow.
This, however, puts a certain amount of pressure on Lenin's vision. Part of what makes his vision palatable is the fact that the transition from capitalism to Communism is, at least in theory, one that doesn't have to be horribly painful (or long). If the dictatorship of the proletariat is necessary, then, at the very least, it can also be mercifully brief. If the bourgeoisie doesn't put up much of a fight, if the technology catches up pretty quickly, and if we're able to socialize the next generation fairly quickly, then we're looking at fifty years max. However, if all of these things take much longer...then things begin to look quite differently. Many people would be willing to work towards a future that their children can live for, but how many of us are so structured to suffer three, four, five (etc.) generations of a dictatorship of the proletariat for the promised land? Of course, the deal is made more palatable the sweeter that land of milk and honey is made to be, but there are limits...
(Consider that the return of Christ was supposed to happen within the first believers' lifetime. Yet, 2000 years later they're no closer to getting their messiah...)
3: Lenin's urgency and his focus on creativity
I've been pretty hard on Lenin so far, but one of the most interesting and admirable things about his thought is just how aware he is of the urgency and the importance of the historical moment he finds himself in. Part of what's so powerful about his writing is that he's not interested in finding a way to compromise and collaborate with others. Rather, he has a certain vision that he not only defends, but on which he's willing to act.
One of the most moving parts of the pamphlet is when he castigates his opponents who, ostensibly, agree with him about the evils of the capitalist mode of production, yet who remain wringing their hands, paralyzed by the fact that the ultimate end of the revolution remains undefined. If Lenin has convinced me of anything, it's that, on the one hand, the revolution is not a matter of perfect rational planning that simply dictates action from start to finish; and, on the other hand, that this is not a reason not to fight for it. In that respect, he touches on something that will be picked up in France a few years later: to not make a choice is itself a choice; if you are not promoting the revolution, then you're promoting the status quo (in saying this I don't mean to imply that the French have a monopoly on this idea--Thoreau's civil disobedience is a shadow of this, and I'm sure there are other, older texts that support it). In these cases, it matters what you choose, and that you choose--what happens may vindicate you and absolve you, but that's not something you'll be able to figure out a priori (Williams also looms in the background here, but, despite the fact that I love him, he, too, does very little but regurgitate old ideas for an analytic audience in a very British way).
Aside from that, I also found it quite interesting that much of Lenin's plan relies on the fact that the future is something that we have to build together. Despite the fact that so much of Marxism (and Marxism-Leninism) is grounded in this deep belief of uncovering the logical course of history scientifically, it's important to note that this claim, too, has limits. Namely, we can't figure out what the Communist future will be like because what that future looks like will have to be something that we negotiate in terms that are not yet available.
In a sense, this is something that is almost trivial. Imagine asking the very first thinkers who were working on breaking the bonds of feudalism to explain what life would be like in 2019. What could they tell you about the problems that we face today? Nothing! Why should be expect more from a guy writing in the 19th century? Why should we expect more from anyone past a certain point? From this perspective, intellectual modesty shouldn't be that impressive. Yet...
(I know that there are people who still harbor the idea that the secrets of our present predicament are to be found in Plato, Christ, Hobbes, or, God help them, Adam Smith. They think that these thinkers had everything figure out and that our biggest problems rest in how far we deviate from their original thought. Maybe the Christians have something there since they've got omniscience built into their guy's theory, but I pity the rest. At least Marx had the sense to say that he can only see so far...)
This focus on the uncertainty and the need for human collaboration and creativity in the face of that uncertainty is something that I think tends to get pushed aside when discussing a figure as forceful and commanding as Lenin. Still, I think this was a central part of how he understood what he was fighting for, and it's an important part of how we should understand him.
4: Historical Cohesion
Finally, I think there's something of value in the fact that one can get a much better understanding of the history of the Soviet Union through Lenin's theoretical commitments. Philosophical question aside, reading The State and Revolution has given me a much better understanding of why events during the Russian revolution happened as they happened.
For example, I completely understand why the Bolsheviks were so insistent on arming the workers given how central the goal of combating the armed state was for Lenin. Likewise, I understand why Lenin was so insistent on wanting the revolution to happen immediately: if all the technology was in place in Germany for the socialist revolution to happen, if all that the proletariat of the world needed to seize the means of production was an example that it could be done, and if Russia was a place in which that revolution could happen, then by God, it better happen quickly! I genuinely believe that Lenin thought that he was on the threshold of a brand new era of new human possibilities and he did everything he could to make sure that he had a hand in crossing that threshold. Similarly, I understand why it was so important for him that once the revolution happened that the rest of Europe also have their own revolution, and I can only imagine how absolutely disappointing it must have been once that failed to happen and just how much creative energy and thought had to go into figuring out what to do next.
Sadly, I also see shades of how the gamble on the world-wide revolution and its subsequent failure lead to some of the excesses of the following decades. I don't think there's a direct line from Leninism to Stalinism, but I do think that there's a reasonable line to be drawn from the failure of Lenin's predictions to the excesses of Stalinism. That's not to say that had Lenin lived longer his ideas would have necessarily lead to Stalin. But it is to say that I do see how a failed world-revolution and, crucially, a misunderstanding of the nature of bureaucracy can lead to someone taking absolute power through the bureaucracy which is, in turn, justified through the uncertain nature of how the revolution would proceed.
All that is not to say that Leninism leads to Stalinism, but that I can see the justification of the latter in the understandable human mistakes of the former. This should be seen as no more of an indictment of Lenin than Nazism is of Nietzsche or Al-Qaeda is of Islam. In short, shit's complicated.