Friday, 23 June 2017

Whatever Happened to, Dear old Lenin?

I've recently re-read Lenin's State and Revolution, arguably his most famous work. Its the one I've seen most referred to by modern Leninists who wish to get new members anyway. I read it and Imperialism years ago when I was still pretty new to left wing politics and they were both over my head.

State and Revolution is quite interesting as both a work of theory and a window into history, it was written in August and September (Old Russian calendar I believe) 1917 and Lenin makes that abundantly clear with numerous references to what was then current events. Its also quite easy to read, its fairly short and the translation on is very good, it reads like an English language original. I did have to look up what panegyric meant but other than that I had no issue understanding the text. The book is largely quotation, mainly from Marx and Engels who are praised heavily, and the German SPD members Kautsky and Bernstein who are criticised constantly. There's not that much of Lenin in the text and most of his words are tied heavily to the quotations or references to the then current political situation.

A fact that's often overlooked about Marx and Engels, even by numerous modern and not so modern Marxists, is that the pair were more than willing to adapt and alter and develop their ideas over time when they encountered new experiences. Their early pre 1848 writings are different from what they published after the Revolutions of 1848. Napoleon the Thirds coup in 1851 also provoked new developments in Marx's thinking. The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte isn't as famous as the Manifesto but a lot of people are familiar at least with the title and the quotation "Once as tragedy, then as farce". And of course most importantly the Paris Commune of 1871 was a very important experience that affected Marx. So much so that months before the uprising at Montmartre, Marx wrote an address to the Parisian workers warning them to remain disciplined and not try to overthrow the government of France. But once the uprising was under way and the Commune was proclaimed he championed it. Indeed he was so impressed with the Communes brief existence that he actually went and made a revision to the Manifesto to include a lesson from the Commune.

Personally I think this the most interesting thing about State and Revolution, the book is a good time line of Marx and Engels attitudes toward the state and explains how it developed in a more radical direction. If he died after writing the Manifesto, you could be forgiven for thinking Marx believed Communism could be achieved simply by taking control of the state by any means, an electoral landslide or a coup would do. Marx did stress the need for a revolutionary mass mobilisations of the workers, but the aim was the conquest of the state so you could be forgiven for wanting to skip a few steps.

That attitude is basically what Lenin was criticising the Opportunists-socialists who were willing to collaborate for state power- for doing. Throughout the work he criticises Kautsky and his fellows for deliberately (in his view) distorting Marx and Engels on the questions of the State and Revolution
“We can quite safely leave the solution of the problems of the proletarian dictatorship of the future,” said Kautsky, writing “against” Bernstein. (p.172, German edition)
This is not a polemic against Bernstein, but, in essence, a concession to him, a surrender to opportunism; for at present the opportunists ask nothing better than to “quite safely leave to the future” all fundamental questions of the tasks of the proletarian revolution.
From 1852 to 1891, or for 40 years, Marx and Engels taught the proletariat that it must smash the state machine. Yet, in 1899, Kautsky, confronted with the complete betrayal of Marxism by the opportunists on this point, fraudulently substituted for the question whether it is necessary to smash this machine the question for the concrete forms in which it is to be smashed, and then sough refuge behind the “indisputable” (and barren) philistine truth that concrete forms cannot be known in advance!!
This passage is from the final section but the tone and manner of argument is consistent from the first page. Kautsky is being dishonest, his dishonesty seems to be motivated by political expediency etc.
The books strengths are its criticisms of Kautsky and the way it outlines Marx and Engels, it even reproduces some rare letters of Engels not easily found otherwise. If you wish to see Marx and Engels views on the state in total State and Revolution is the easiest way of doing that.
However there are some interesting weaknesses in the book. Mainly it doesn't really explain the relationship between the State and the Revolution. Oh it talks about the two from cover to cover but its mostly reference, neither Lenin, nor Marx or Engels explain the necessary link. They all talk about how important it is to smash the bourgeois state machine (its parliaments, prisons, standing armies, police and bureaucracy) and replace it with a new one, the replacement is a bit vaguer but it involves the people armed and mandated and recallable delegates handling administration work without privileges beyond workmen's wages. And a system like the Paris Commune, but a bit different, like either a union of communes or the commune model on a smaller scale, depending on the quotation. And that this will eventually lead to the withering away of the rest of the state and complete the revolution with its abolishment.

But at no point do any of the three make the case why the state is necessary at all in this process. Lenin constantly criticises the Anarchists in the book for not realising why the state in its proletarian form is absolutely necessary for its completion for example

We have now seen how, in their controversy with the anarchists, marx and Engels with the utmost thoroughness explained their views on the relation of revolution to the state. In 1891, in his foreword to Marx’ s Critique of the Gotha Programme, Engels wrote that “we”—that is, Engels and Marx—"were at that time, hardly two years after the Hague Congress of the [First] International, engaged in the most violent struggle against Bakunin and his anarchists."
The anarchists had tried to claim the Paris Commune as their “own”, so to say, as a collaboration of their doctrine; and they completely misunderstood its lessons and Marx’ s analysis of these lessons. Anarchism has given nothing even approximating true answers to the concrete political questions: Must the old state machine be smashed? And what should be put in its place?
It is safe to say that of this argument of Engels', which is so remarkably rich in ideas, only one point has become an integral part of socialist thought among modern socialist parties, namely, that according to Marx that state “withers away” — as distinct from the anarchist doctrine of the “abolition” of the state.
It was solely against this kind of “abolition” of the state that Marx fought in refuting the anarchists! He did not at all oppose the view that the state would disappear when classes disappeared, or that it would be abolished when classes were abolished. What he did oppose was the proposition that the workers should renounce the use of arms, organized violence, that is, the state, which is to serve to "crush the resistance of the bourgeoisie".
These quotations are from all over the book and are only a couple of the many similar (actually identical in intent) criticisms. I thought about laying them out chronologically, but there really isn't any point while Marx and Engels develop throughout book, the attacks on anarchism don't really change.

Notice how they don't actually explain why there view is the correct one? Well we do get a slight substantiation in the last one about Marx commenting on disarmament. Here's the quotation Lenin was referring to in that last extract.

This controversy took place in 1873. Marx and Engels contributed articles against the Proudhonists, “autonomists” or "anti- authoritarians", to an Italian socialist annual, and it was not until 1913 that these articles appeared in German in Neue Zeit.
"If the political struggle of the working class assumes revolutionary form," wrote Marx, ridiculing the anarchists for their repudiation of politics, "and if the workers set up their revolutionary dictatorship in place of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, they commit the terrible crime of violating principles, for in order to satisfy their wretched, vulgar everyday needs and to crush the resistance of the bourgeoisie, they give the state a revolutionary and transient form, instead of laying down their arms and abolishing the state."
(Neue Zeit Vol.XXXII, 1, 1913-14, p.40)

Now Marx was specifically arguing with the followers of Proudhon (Mutualists) here, Bakunin the other major Anarchist contemporary of Marx whom he also hated, could not possibly be accused of pacifism. If anything Bakunins flaw was the opposite a bit to quick to emphasis violent insurrection. But even limiting the criticism to Proudhon and the Mutualists there are still some issues here. Firstly the Mutualists did take part in the fighting of Paris Commune, Proudhon himself while he was personally not a supporter of the use of force ideally, and never fought himself as far as I know[1], he did still go to the barricades in Paris 1848 and met with the revolutionaries there and he did support the revolutions throughout the continent, so even on this limited grounds its simply a false accusation.
In addition there's the equivalence of armed force and the state which is simply bizarre. By this point in time Marx was firmly wedded to the idea that for a revolution to be successful it must smash the old state machine including its repressive forces, the police and army, and that special armed bodies of men would be needed to carry this out. But if that happens, then the state has been broken down and you already have a means of organised violence already mobilised and bloodied, so why is a new state necessary then? The bourgeoisie have already lost their shield and the workers are already armed. In order to fulfil Marx's vision they would have to achieve quite a few of the preconditions of Anarchism and then step back from that.

But the weakness of the criticism of the anarchists is even shallower at times, here's a quotation from Lenin that may sound familiar to a syndicalist if reworded a bit

We are not utopians, we do not “dream” of dispensing at once with all administration, with all subordination. These anarchist dreams, based upon incomprehension of the tasks of the proletarian dictatorship, are totally alien to Marxism, and, as a matter of fact, serve only to postpone the socialist revolution until people are different. No, we want the socialist revolution with people as they are now, with people who cannot dispense with subordination, control, and "foremen and accountants". The subordination, however, must be to the armed vanguard of all the exploited and working people, i.e., to the proletariat. A beginning can and must be made at once, overnight, to replace the specific “bossing” of state officials by the simple functions of "foremen and accountants", functions which are already fully within the ability of the average town dweller and can well be performed for "workmen's wages".
He gets another dig in at the Anarchists but after that he starts talking about something that seems very close to workers self organisation. The reference to Foremen is a bit odd but since he's lumped them in with accountants it seems more like a reference to work team leaders then say the Boss's toady. And he says that the workers can and should start taking on economic administrative tasks, so if they can do this immediately and under a hypothetical socialist revolution the majority of the workers are already mobilised into special armed bodies and mandated delegations, why is the factory and workshop movement lagging behind? And if it isn't lagging behind the others than again the state which Lenin says is just an instrument for one class to oppress another, becomes even more redundant.

If the bourgeoisie have lost the state machine, the people are armed and willing to fight, and the economy is quickly being taking over by the workforce, why do you need a rump state? What precisely can it do that the class conscious and mobilised working masses who keep in mind have already overcome the main physical threats to the revolution can't?

This question is just not answered in the text, and considering the subject, its the most important one to be addressed. Lenin himself criticised Kautsky for leaving important questions unanswered in his texts so why shouldn't the same apply here?

There was going to be a seventh chapter, but according to the notes that would be about the 1905 and 1917 revolutions so I doubt there would be an answer there.

I decided to read this again because it was recommended to me by several self described Leninists, but I honestly don't think they've read it recently either because it doesn't say what they seem to think it does. One actually went so far as to claim that Lenin wasn't a statist because he wrote this book. I'll be honest this book actually makes me think the Anarchist approach to the State and Revolution is more credible not less, and I've come to that conclusion largely agreeing with the text.

I actually enjoyed reading State and Revolution,it was written to attack the pro war Provisional Government and the Pro War German Social Democrats, so Lenins main targets are deserving of the venom and he is correct that the opportunists, Kautsky, Bernstein and Plekhanov did distort what Marx and Engels said on this issue.

But mainly I was impressed because I saw Marx, Engels and Lenins ideas develop after each section, and as they got more radical and more nuanced they seemed to get much closer to Anarchism. The specific hypotheticals of the new revolutionary society they came up with probably wouldn't be welcome in an Anarchist paper, but at there most developed the differences largely boil down to terminology (like Engels arguing that his proposed Commune system isn't really federal but a Union) and pacing issues. Its pretty weak criticism when you strip out the insults and mischaracterisations.
I can see why other Bolsheviks feared Lenin had succumbed to Anarchist deviationism, of course he didn't but it is amusing that even a number of Leninists think Lenin was at his best when at he was at his most Anarchistic.

1: I'm not an expert on Proudhons ideas or his life so its possible I'm wrong here, but if so I think this would make the criticism even weaker.

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