Lenin's State and Revolution offers crucial insights to those campaigning to change the world 100 years later, explains Paul Vernell
The purpose of the pamphlet, State and Revolution was to review what Marx and Engels had to say about the state and about revolution. Lenin had to return to Marx and Engels in order to challenge the distortions of other Marxists, who he frequently criticised. The pamphlet is both of its time and also stunningly relevant today. Our ruling classes across the world continue to force ‘austerity’ on the majority. New political parties of the left have emerged that at best underestimate and at worse ignore, the question of the role of the state in relation to left reforming governments. From Syrizia in Greece to Podemos in Spain to the left in the Labour Party in the UK, the state is viewed as a tool that can be used in the implementation of radical reforms to benefit working people.
So, one of Lenin’s tasks was to clarify what Marx and Engels had to say about the state This involves the use of very long quotations from Marx and Engels. However, there is a good reason for this. Lenin wanted to challenge those like Kautsky, the theoretician of German social democracy, the name used for left wing parties at the time. Lenin demonstrates beyond dispute, what Marx and Engels really said about the state in order to prove that Kautsky was fudging the big question: can the state be taken over because it is a neutral space or does it have to be overthrown and ‘smashed’?
What is the state?
Lenin begins by establishing quickly that the state is a body that arises out of the “irreconcilability of class antagonisms”.(His italics). It is set of institutions that monitors, controls and enforces the rule of one class over another in order to ensure order. He points out that ultimately the state is about soldiers, the police, prisons and courts, Anyone watching the ferocious counter-revolution going on in Egypt at the moment can see that Lenin is not making this up.
However, Lenin’s argument goes further. These special armed bodies are crucial he says. But, the state is more than these. Following Marx in The Communist Manifesto, Lenin argues that the state is a committee for sorting out the affairs of the whole ruling class.  Whole is the key word here. Lenin pulls out the subtlety of Marx’s analysis by pointing out that the ruing elites in society are seldom at one on which direction to go. Debates about Europe and Brexit now are a good example of this and show how the ruling class can split over what to do. These arguments between those in power get nasty. The state, therefore, has to try and hold factions and groupings, sometimes warring factions and groupings, together. To fail to do so would be disastrous for those in power as their squabbles might go too far and lead to crisis and instability because their economic and political interests often diverge. Ruing class splits often open up space for insurgency from below. This is something that the state wants to avoid and it therefore mediates between factions within the ruling class.
The state might be compared then, to a huge house with different rooms of varying importance. The crucial room, let’s call it the cellar, is where the special bodies of armed men and women are housed-the obviously repressive state functions. Another important room is what might be called the front room-parliament. This is where the rules and regulations of society are made. This is the show room. The place the ruling class wants us to see because anyone can come here if they get elected, or so they tell us. It is held up as a place of democracy. Okay, sometimes the guests over do it, taking bribes and living the life of Riley on expenses at our expense but it is the democratic fig-leaf that hides the really important bits of the state out of sight.
Another more important room however, is what is often referred to as the ‘executive’. Lenin argues that ‘the real business of state’ is carried out here behind people’s backs. The relationship between elected politicians and unelected but powerful civil servants was satirized effectively in the comedy series Yes Minister. This is the space where the top civil servants, advisors and lawyers hang out. It is an area shrouded in mystery. Even the way they communicate is difficult to understand as one of their top jobs is to conceal from us what really is going on.
Some call this the ‘state bureaucracy’ as it is completely unaccountable. These are the people who, in Chris Mullins’ novel A Vey British Coup, foil the election of a leftwing prime minster, Harry Perkins and lead a coup against him.  We can see the relevance then of Lenin’s ideas here. They are a reminder that if we elect the ‘wrong’ person, one who might want to challenge the pro-austerity policies of what has become known as neoliberalism, the executive can step in to thwart any action or policy that might harm ruling class interests. Of course, even the slippery ways of the executive do not always work. And that is when the doors of the cellar can be opened and the repressive forces of the state let out onto the street.
Lenin makes clear that for most of the time the system does not need to rely big time on the heavy handed use of force. It is dangerous for them. One effect of relying too overtly on the repressive state apparatus doing is to rip the democratic mask from the face of the ruling class and its institutions. The seemingly benign control of Shakespeare’s Prospero in the Tempest is revealed to be premised on the grotesque violence of Caliban.
In fact the American Marxist, Hal Draper, presses the allusion further.  He goes as far as to say that Prospero is a useful metaphor for the ruling class who are too busy ruling and exploiting us economically to interfere with the day to day ‘admin’ of the state so they leave that to Caliban who provides, food, firewood and carries out all the unpleasant tasks. Sometimes Caliban does not do as he is told but can be brought to heel if needs must. And talk of this this leads me to the issue of territory.
A point not always brought out by those summarising State and Revolution is that the state, unlike in pre-class societies, defines a physical space which has been carved out of conflict. The state not only protects the ruling class from internal threats but external ones too. Drawing on Engels, Lenin points out that as capitalism is a system of geo-political rivalry, the armed forces can be used to defend, expand, or destroy territory and those living in it. During the 19th century military expenditure expanded massively. Today spending on the military is so great it could feed the world many times over.
This helps the state to appear as though it stands above society ensuring order in all aspects of life at home and abroad and can therefore seem neutral in class terms. This leads some who should know better, argues Lenin, to claim that the existing state can be used to usher in socialism.
What is the alternative?
Much of Lenin’s pamphlet reminds readers of Marx’s celebration of a new type of state that had emerged, albeit briefly in 1871: the Paris Commune.(6) In Paris the communards had destroyed the state by replacing it with one that had a very different organisation and structure.
Firstly, the traditional separation of the making of rules and carrying them out were now done by the same people. Subversion by an unaccountable bureaucracy could be prevented at a stroke.
The election of the Commune’s representatives, men, were elected on the basis that they could be de-selected at any time if the electorate thought that they were not doing what they were voted in to do. Whilst the salary of an MP today is more than twice the average salary, the communards and state officials were only allowed the average workman’s wages. Finally, the Commune ensured that the special bodies of armed men were replaced by the armed people.
This point is worth elaborating as it seems so distant from our experience. The idea here is that we should oversee ourselves. And of course, as Lenin argues, day one after a successful revolution it is not very realistic to believe that those who ran society will turn round and say, ‘Okay, you’ve won. Over to you’. All kinds of subterfuge could attend a successful redirection of resources to meet the needs of the 99%. But, the key element is that in the transition from a class society, the old state has been replaced, or in Lenin’s words ‘smashed’.
Of course, there would still be classes in existence and the new state is shaped by this. And here the language Lenin uses often shocks people. He calls the new state, like Marx before him, a ‘dictatorship’ of the working class. Images of gulags and death chambers, from Stalin to Hitler, immediately float before some people’s eyes. But words change their meaning. If we really want to find out if Lenin was the psychopath of popular myth maybe we should look at what happens to words over time. Language changes like everything else. And that is why knowing what an 1850 reader of The Communist Manifesto might have understood by ‘dictatorship’ is necessary.
The received meaning of the word ‘dictatorship’ in Marx’s time was rooted in its use to describe the Roman republics. The word’s meaning was linked to references to the dictatura. This was the constitutional right of the legally formed republic, in times of emergency, to delegate some
decision-making to a one man ruler. Secondly, then, the meaning is tied to the idea of the delegation of power which was temporary-6 months maximum- and it was limited to military decisions and suspension of laws but not the creation of new ones.(7) The key for Marx, and therefore Lenin in State and Revolution, is that the state form is being described as transitory in nature.
Lenin uses the term as synonymous with workers’ state. Now this is important for Lenin’s next move where he has a dig at those who want to get rid of all states straight after the revolution.
Lenin argues that the workers’ state, or ‘dictatorship’, is a transitional one which emerges from the struggle of people to change society AND to prevent its overthrow by external or internal ruling class violence. The state form is temporary, and having completed its work, it withers away. Why Lenin asks? Because the state is the product of irreconcilable class antagonism and the class basis for the state has disappeared.
Therefore, even the workers’ state is merely a moment on the journey to a proto-political authority when the new human being with her/his new and developing codes of interaction emerges in the process of shaping the world to a new set of priorities focused on need not competitive accumulation.
After a revolution decisive action needs to be taken. Lenin makes this point. But what modern commentators do is suggest that this is unlike anything that has ever happened before in the UK. Nonetheless, the UK ruling classes’ strategy in the Second World War looks very much like the actions of a Roman republic. Temporarily banning strikes, taking over ownership of private companies to put at the service of the state, suspending elections and throwing people in prison whose views or actions were seen as threat to the war effort, were needed and justified by Churchill’s government and are all classic examples of the 19th century definition of dictatorship, albeit a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.
So should we ignore parliament?
Later in 1921, in another important text, Leftwing Communism: an infantile disorder, Lenin argues decisively NO, especially in the context of an important debate with some British ultra-lefts who wanted to boycott the Labour Party. (8) Working with and alongside those who, for instance, share many similar political objectives can allow those who believe that the state is neutral and can be taken over to review their ideas. Organising to defend the NHS or pensions, or campaigning to put a left-wing leader into office can build political relationships that allow for a deeper understanding of the state and its nature. The ruling ideas about the state can be challenged in struggle and those who previously thought the state could be used, can be won to a different perspective. The modern state stands in the way of progressive and fundamental change and needs to be replaced. This is the message of Lenin’s State and Revolution. It is just as relevant a hundred years after its publication.
 Lenin, V.State and Revolution
 Marx, K and Engels, F.The Communist Manifesto
 Lenin,V ibid
 Mullin, A Very British Coup
 Draper, H. Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution Vol 1, Monthly Review Press, 1977, p 318
 Marx, K. ‘The Civil War in France’ in
 Draper, H. Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution Vol 3 Monthly Review Press,
 Lenin,V. Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder
Event: Revolution - Russia 1917: One Hundred Years on
25 Feb, Rich Mix London
With Tariq Ali, Paul Le Blanc, Lindsey German, Lucia Pradella and many more.
Storming heaven: the achievements of 1917Paul Le Blanc, August Nimtz, Lindsey German
Democracy and the RevolutionAugust Nimtz, Judy Cox
War, nationalism and revolutionMaria Nikolakaki, Chris Bambery, Alastair Stephens
Lenin and LeninismTariq Ali, Paul le Blanc, and Kate Connelly
Revolution in the 21 CenturyJohn Rees, Stathis Kouvelakis, Tamas Krausz, Lucia Pradella
August Nimtz is Professor in the Political Science department at University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Minneapolis. He is a leading thinker and writer on socialist strategy, race in the United States and politics in Africa as well as an internationally recognised expert on Marx.
Lucia Pradella is an activist and writer who has written two acclaimed books on Marx's Capital.
Paul Le Blanc is a world renowned writer on revolutionary history and the Russian revolution in particular. Currently Professor of History at La Roche College in Pittsburgh, since the 1960s he has been active in struggles for human rights and economic justice.
Lindsey German is a socialist activist and writer. As convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Tariq Ali is a socialist writer and broadcaster. A lifelong leader in anti-imperialist and socialist campaigns, he has been at the forefront of protests against war from Vietnam to the Middle East. His new book on Lenin is out in March.
Maria Nikolakaki is a Greek intellectual and activist. She is a founding member of the Cooperative Institute for Transnational Studies.
Tamasz Kraus is a well know radical intellectual in Hungary and on of the editiors of Marxist journal Eszmélet, he published the award winning Reconstructing Lenin: an intellectual biography in 2015.
Judy Cox is a lifelong socialist writer and speaker. Now a teacher in East London, Judy was on the editorial board of International Socialism and has written amongst other things on Marx’s theory of alienation, Rosa Luxemburg’s economic theory, William Blake and Robin Hood.
Paul Vernell is a long-standing socialist and NUT representative in a South Gloucestershire Multi-Academy Trust. He has written on trade unions, education and critical pedagogy. He blogs at In the City.