Tuesday, June 16, 2009

THE STATE AND REVOLUTION - An Anarchist Viewpoint.

My intention here is not to make points against Lenin, but rather to analyze "The State And Revolution" as objectively as possible, yet remain within the context of anarchism. This analysis written by Lenin some months before the October Revolution, has been called his most libertarian work. Writers such as Hal Draper, Raya Dunayevskya, C.L.R James, therefore claimed that Lenin was something of a libertarian socialist and Trotskyists have also used it to claim that he was in favour of workers' power.

The State and Revolution, more than any other document, spells out the Marxist concept of revolution and its immediate aftermath. It also brings into clear focus the differences and similarities between Marxism (a) and anarchism over the nature of revolutionary governance. (b) A major bone of contention between anarchists and Marxists is over the notion of the "workers' state." Anarchists typically see these concepts as a Marxist desire to erect a powerful centralized state and party dictatorship over the working class.

What is a state in Marxist terms? According to Lenin the state develops where class antagonisms cannot be reconciled. (1) For Engels the state is a power standing above society to alleviate the conflict. The state requires a territory, the armed forces not coinciding with the people. If the state stands over society liberation therefore ultimately requires its destruction. (2) The final goal of Marxists and Anarchists is thus the same – a stateless and classless society. It is in the details of the intervening period between the old system and the new where we find differences of opinion.

Why A Workers' State?

It order to defend the revolution, revolutionaries must suppress counter-revolution and this is accomplished by the armed working population. By the very act of suppressing another class, the workers, in Marxist terms, have a "state." The state, ie, the proletariat organized as the ruling class. (3) The form that the workers state takes, Marx says, is that of suppression of the standing army and its replacement by the armed people. (4) Lenin too, saw the workers state as nothing more than the exploiting class being suppressed by the armed populace. But this"state" really is not a state in the regular sense of the word – a bureaucracy, standing army separate from the people, but is a "state" that is already disappearing. ("withering away") This is what is Lenin called the abolition of the state as state and is the fullest form of democracy. (5) 463 As soon as the revolution is successful and the workers have broken the power of the rulers, that remaining essence of the state begins to dissolve itself. For Engels, ...there is no longer any social class to be held in subjection...[there is] nothing necessitating a special coercive force or state. (6)

But workers simply cannot take over the existing state and use it. They must smash it and replace it with something new. In order for the revolution to be successful, it must be a people's revolution, (7) (peasants and workers) and the smashing of the state is the pre-condition of this alliance. This new form of governance is the Commune. The Commune is the form discovered by the proletariat under which the emancipation of the proletariat takes place. (8) The basic structure of the workers state or commune would be to ...elect delegates, all revocable, control and supervision by all, at wages the average of the worker. (9) Lenin mentions favorably Engels remark about the need to replace the term [workers] state with "commune" as more accurate and less confusing. (10)

A Contradiction?

While lauding the Commune and its direct democracy, Lenin also said that in this workers state, state power involves a centralized organization of forces – the vanguard "directing and organizing the new system... (11) But this seems contradicted by his favorable attitude to Engels rather decentralist view that in the early French Republic of 1792-98 each commune enjoyed complete self-government on the American model. (12) Engels also favored the Australian and Canadian system of provincial and municipal governments, seeking a situation where there was complete self-government for provinces, districts and communes... abolition of all local and provincial authority appointed by the state. (13)

We will see later, that Lenin seems to confuse centralization with unity and this confusion is one root of contention between Marxists and anarchists.

Two Different Analytic Tools.

By positing the state in its ultimate sense as one class suppressing another, Marxists engaged in an ontological definition – the state is essentially class domination. Anarchists, on the other hand view the state not as a concept or abstraction, but as the "really existing state". Their analysis is empirical (descriptive) – the state has a bureaucracy, a governing body and army separate from the people etc. Thus, for anarchists, the Commune is NOT a state, and for the Marxists it is the last vestige of the state. Both are right according to the choice of analytic tools, and the ontological and the empirical are both valid ways of looking at the world. Nor should Marxism be reduced to the ontological and anarchism to the empirical in some general way. Both tendencies use both methodologies, though sometimes in different ways.

Marx and Lenin Attack The Anarchists

If the above was all there was to State and Revolution, the situation between anarchists and Marxists would be "you say tomaytoe, I say tomahto." However, Lenin, and Marx and Engels before him, systematically misrepresented the anarchist position on revolution, organization and governance. While it is true that anarchists have also misrepresented Marxists, sometimes grossly, I would suggest that Marxist misinformation has only served to reinforce the negative stereotype anarchists often have of them. (c.)

Lenin states, contra anarchism, We are not utopians, we do not dream of dispensing at once with all administration, with all subordination. These are anarchist dreams. (14) Accordingly, The anarchists dismissed the question of political forms altogether (15) and only have a vague notion of what they wish to replace the state with. (16) They just want to destroy the state, period. Anarchism is thus a tactic of dispair, rather than taking into account practical problems.(17)

Let's see what Lenin's anarchist predecessors and contemporaries had to say about administration, political forms and their destruction. (All emphasis below is mine.)

On the other hand the State has also been confused with Government. Since there can be no State without government, it has sometimes been said that what one must aim at is the absence of government and not the abolition of the State. However, it seems to me that State and government are two concepts of a different order. The State idea means something quite different from the idea of government. The State, Its Historic Role, Peter Kropotkin

There is a need for a revolution... This conviction has led many to believe that the only important thing is the insurrection, and to overlook what has to be done to prevent an insurrection from remaining a sterile act of violence against which an act of reactionary violence would be the eventual reply. For those who believe this, all the practical questions of organization... are matters which will solve themselves... Yet the conclusion we come to is this: Social reorganization is something we must all think about right now... In order to abolish the police and all the harmful social institutions we must know what to put in their place... immediately, the very day we start demolishing. One only destroys, effectively and permanently, that which one replaces by something else; and to put off to a later date... would be to give time to the institutions one is intending to abolish to recover from the shock and reassert themselves, perhaps under other names, but certainly with the same structure. The Anarchist Revolution, Errico Malatesta

by the... federation of communes to replace the domineering, paternalistic state. Micheal Bakunin, Bakunin On Anarchy, Sam Dolgoff, Vintage 1971, P. 262

Collective power... workmen's associations in place of armies. Proudhon in George Woodcock, The Anarchist Reader, Fontana, 1980, p.293

A new form of political organization has to be worked out. And it is evident that the new form will have to be more popular, more decentralized, and nearer to the folkmoot self-government than representative government can ever be.

Kropotkin in Paul Berman, Quotations From The Anarchists, Praeger, 1972, p. 68,

The nation is a free association of communes. Mandatories are at all time subject to recall. Carlo Piscane in Robert Graham, Anarchism, Black Rose, Montreal, 2005, p.66

Lenin claimed that the anarchists thought that the workers should "renounce the use of arms, organized violence, that is the state... [they] repudiated all authority, all subordination, all power." (18) Were anarchists that naive?

We must play an active part in the necessary physical struggle... in order to destroy all the repressive forces of the government and to induce the people to take possession of the land, homes, transport, factories, mines, and of all existing goods... We must... encourage action... in order to prevent the emergence of new authoritarian groups, new governments, combating them with violence if necessary... The Anarchist Revolution, Errico Malatesta

Revolution means war... Either the bourgeois world will subdue... the people... or the working masses will... destroy to its roots bourgeois exploitation... the uprooting of all that is represented by the State. Pps 372-373 It is necessary ... there be a real force in the field, one that knows what should be done...capable of taking hold of the Revolution and giving it direction salutery for the people... a serious international organization of workers' associations. p.375. Begin by striking down those who oppress you... and having destroyed the power of your enemies... disarmed and helpless... invite them to live and work along side you....p.377 The Political Philosophy of Bakunin G. P. Maximoff Free Press 1964,

The purpose of revolutionary organizations is to help people toward self-determination... the least interference from any sort of domination. Bakunin- The Philosophy of Freedom, Brian Morris, Black Rose 1993, p.148

It is necessary to make sure the [revolutionary] movement... is not simply a blind movement... on taking up the Winchester we go forth decided, not upon the enthronement of another boss, but the reclamation of rights of the people.

179 War against the wage system, Mexicans! ...make the lands and machinery of production for common use; and this can only be achieved through means of force... And if those who ...oppose this work of supreme social justice, kill them!

Dreams of Freedom, Ricardo Flores Magon,, eds Chaz Bufe, M.C. Veter, p.155

In each Syndicate [union] a group for defense was formed... they exercised themselves in the management of arms... not to be taken unawares [by] reactionary conspiracy... These Syndicalist battalions were not a force external to the people, they were the people themselves ...at the same time they seized the factories... they occupied... all the points where the reactionaries might have been able to concentrate... [they] were ruthlessly isolated... Emile Pouget, How We Shall Bring about The revolution, Pluto, London, 1990, p151

The structure of the CGT.. is neither centralist nor authoritarian...[it] is controlled from below...Confederal activities co-ordinated by the... delegates... In the regulation of collective affairs the Congress [of the CGT] is entirely sovereign. Pierre Monatte 1907 in George Woodcock The Anarchist Reader Fontana 1980. p. 214

Unless democracy is a fraud... each citizen in the sphere of his industry, each municipality, disctrict or provincial council, within its own territory, is the only natural and legitimate representative... The People is ... the organic union of wills... Such a union must be sought in the harmony of their interests, not in artificial centralization. Proudhon, Anarchism, Robt. Graham ed Black Rose 2005, p.57

Lenin claimed that Anarchists find no use in exploring past revolutions to find out what to replace state with. (18)

I would be unable to accept the view that all past revolutions though they were not anarchist revolutions were useless, nor that future ones which will still not be anarchist revolutions will be useless. The Anarchist Revolution, Errico Malatesta It should also be remembered that Kropotkin wrote an entire book on the French Revolution where he described the Parisian sections. Proudhon also wrote about it as well.

Marx disagreed with Bakunin and Proudhon on federalism and Lenin wrote it off as an aspect of the "petty bourgeois" nature of anarchism.. (19) For Lenin, Marx was a centralist and this was exemplified as The proletarians and poor peasants... organize themselves quite freely in communes, unite all the communes in... crushing the resistence of the capitalists, in transferring [industry] to the entire nation, won't that be centralism?

After reading the quotes from the anarchists above on organization and administration, there should be little doubt anarchists want to see the proletarians and poor peasants... organize themselves quite freely in communes, unite all the communes in... crushing the resistence of the capitalists, in transferring [industry] to the entire nation.. But this is seen not as "centralization" but "unity in action". For anarchists centralization means top-down control and no autonomy in the units that make up the centralized organization. We have already seen that Marx, Engels and Lenin all agree that control should be from the bottom up ...elect delegates, all revocable, control and supervision by all, and the communes should have the degree of autonomy necessary to carry out their functions, "complete self-government for provinces, districts and communes...

Lenin seems to confuse unity with centralization. Both he and Marx also seem confused about federalism. They deny the need for it, yet at the same time insist upon the complete self government of the communes. What is local autonomy combined with delegation, other than a form of federalism? It may be that Marx and Lenin thought federalism meant too loose a structure, communes or counties as virtual independent countries, and thus dis-unity and conflict. Perhaps like the thousands of petty German principalities during Marx's youth, or the "federalism" of business unionism where different trades scab on each other. But this was never the federal concept among social anarchists.

Finally there is the canard about "petty bourgeois anarchists". For sure there are such anarchists, just like there are "petty bourgeois" socialists. But these "individualist anarchists" are few in number compared with social anarchists. (d) This slander by Marxists has always seemed like psychological projection. Syndicalism is the most purely proletarian form of socialism, yet among the Marxist parties is where one finds lawyers, academics and the children of the middle class in charge.


Marxists who adhere to the principles of the Paris Commune and anarchists have much more in common than they think. Strip away the polemical exaggerations, strip away the fallacious arguments, and you have two groups who seek Popular Power for the working masses.

It seemed to 19th Century revolutionaries that they could defeat other revolutionary tendencies through polemics, and these were often of dubious honesty. Criticism of genuine weaknesses and errors are to be desired, as they help develop our practice. False or polemically exaggerated statements do nothing but exacerbate division and animosity. Tendencies can be almost obliterated by violence – witness anarchism in the 1930's and 40's as it was stamped out by fascism and Stalinism. But when the ground is fertile they are reborn. A tendency will only be permanently reduced to insignificance when it is totally disconnected from the reality of the times and the needs of the people. Witness the Socialist Labor Party which has been dying since 1900 and experienced no significant growth during any of the periods of revolt of the last century. 150 years of polemics between Marxists and Anarchists, and guess what? Both of us are still here, in most cases more alive than in several generations.

More important than tendency or ideology is practice, or desired practice. If you believe in worker and neighborhood assembles with recallable delegates, self-management and multi-tendency direct democracy, these common principles should take precedence over the quarrels of 150 years ago.


a. Except for " libertarian Marxism", which denies the need for any form of state.

b. I have chosen the word "governance" as a neutral term to describe the political organization of post-revolutionary society. Governance can be either statist or non-statist, in the anarchist usage of the term, state..

c. There have always been anarchists respectful of Marx, such as Albert Parsons, Daniel Guerin, Murray Bookchin and Kevin Carson. Furthermore, much anarchist animosity can be traced to Bakunin's understandable confusion between the German Social Democratic Party and the thinking of Marx and Engels.

d. Social anarchists are those with some level of class analysis, consider themselves socialists and favor, where needed, large scale organization. Social anarchists include mutualists, syndicalists and anarchist communists.

1. 387, 2. 387, 3. 402, 4. 418, 5. 397, 6. 395, 7. 416-17, 8. 432, 9. 481, 10. 440, 11. 404, 12. 447, 13. 448, 14. 425, 15. 431, 16. 484, 17. 488, 18. 436, 19. 427

All the above pages came from "The State and Revolution", in "Lenin's Collected Works" Vol. 25, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1964



Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey larry,

my name is byron, and ive been looking all over the web for an article/zine i think you may have written a while ago, critiquing p.c. codes of conduct and the like.. i think.
i once asked you about it at the anarchist bookfair in montreal maybe in 2003? but whatever. im still looking for it now. is there any way of getting my hands on it?



5:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent post! Let us forget about the old Marx-Bakunin crap. Radical Marxists and anarchists should unite and stop bickering over a 150-year-old silly feud.

7:39 AM  
Blogger Frank Partisan said...

I hope Graeme comments. He is very interested in this subject.

I think you have to always go back to the Paris Commune, because it was accomplished in the real world. It wasn't a "historical project" or a utopian fantasy. I found State and Revolution, to be a document, uniting the two views, more than not. It was primarily a polemic against social democrats.

Marie Trigona will be writing a book for AK, about workers control.

12:37 AM  
Blogger Graeme said...

Very good Larry.

Now, the question becomes: how do we take power? What are your thoughts on political parties?

6:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

May I point to these sections of An Anarchist FAQ:

H.1.7 Haven't you read Lenin's "State and Revolution"?


H.2.1 Do anarchists reject defending a revolution?

And I should also note, that as well as totally misrepresenting anarchist ideas on the state, Lenin was distorted Marx and Engels as well:

H.3.10 Has Marxism always supported the idea of workers' councils?

An Anarchist FAQ

7:31 AM  
Blogger Larry Gambone said...

Ren. You are right that S and R is mostly about the Social Democrats and how they wished to use the existing state to achieved what they claimed was socialism. I am looking forward to Maria's book.

Graeme, now you are suggesting another article! these subjects are too vast to discuss in a simple reply - to put it mildly. Wait, Graeme, I will respond in a few days.

Iain, there I go "reinventing the wheel". The one part of the FAQ I never got around to reading and forgot about! Thanks for reminding me. Before I respond to Graeme's request, I WILL check with the FAQ!

11:38 AM  
Blogger Mr. Beer N. Hockey said...

The reds I have worked side by side with taught me I am damn lucky not to be in the same part of the pasture as that part of the herd. Having a group do your thinking for you, ever, is treacherous.

12:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As someone mentioned, the Paris Commune is very important -- both in terms of what happened and the conclusions anarchists and Marxists drew from it. I discuss it here in some detail:

The Paris Commune, Marxism and Anarchism

Suffice to say, by 1921 Trotsky was dismissing the Communards as being petit-bourgeois federalists who knew nothing, a change from Lenin's State and Revolution four years before!

And I should also note that much of the Commune's actual ideas were obviously inspired by Proudhon, an awkward fact Marx (and Lenin!) did not bother to mention! I'm hoping, if there is space, to have an appendix on the Paris Commune in the Proudhon Reader I'm doing for AK Press!

An Anarchist FAQ

1:01 AM  
Anonymous Paul said...

An enjoyable and well written article. Kodos!

5:20 PM  

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