Bukharin's Review of Lenin's The State and Revolution

The short review in Kommunist No. 1 of Lenin’s 1917 work The State and Revolution was not inserted just to fill a couple of pages. In April 1918 Bukharin had deliberate political intent. The bulk of Kommunist No. 1 is full of searing critiques of the dangers that the revolution faced after the reluctant signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. For the “proletarian communists”, as they called themselves, but “left communists” as they were dubbed by Lenin, Brest Litovsk spelled a retreat in the revolution on more than one front. We have already published the critiques of Ossinsky on the danger of state capitalism and Radek on the international policy of the revolution(1) but in the piece that follows Bukharin is playing a more subtle game.

By praising Lenin’s earlier work he is reminding him of its revolutionary content and the fact that this was one of the key documents in the Bolshevik break with the deadweight of a social democratic movement that had become almost totally integrated into the capitalist system. It was also written from the perspective that only the working class as a whole could build socialism; a perspective which the majority of the Bolshevik Party had held until the spring of 1918.(2)

The Bolshevik break with social democracy began in 1914. The shock which many of the leaders of the social democratic parties, but especially in Germany, delivered to the revolutionary wing of the movement cannot be underestimated. By going against all the resolutions they had passed against war and on the mass working class action they would call on to prevent it, the social democratic movement as a whole moved over to the side of capitalism. Only the Russian, Polish, Bulgarian and other small Balkan parties stuck to their principles.

On behalf of the Bolsheviks, Lenin now denounced not only those who had voted war budgets for their governments but also those who took a pacifist stance or, like Kautsky, claimed the war was an aberration and they could get back to their reformist ways once it was over. For Lenin the war had revealed that capitalism had entered a new era. Previously he had based socialist policy on his 1899 work, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, which recognised that Russia was now economically largely capitalist, but politically the bourgeoisie, or capitalist class, were not in political control. Like most social democrats he saw their acquisition of power as the next necessary step in preparation for the proletarian revolution to follow. But whereas the Mensheviks regarded the proletarian revolution as something for the very distant future, Lenin could see that the feebleness of the Russian indigenous capitalist class would make their rule short and weak, and the proletariat in Russia would have to complete the task of ‘overseeing economic development in Russia’.

The war suddenly made even this perspective obsolete. For Lenin capitalism as a whole had now entered its imperialist phase. The question of socialism could not be posed in national but international terms. The war crisis demonstrated the need for an international proletarian revolution. Lenin set to work to prove the imperialist nature of capitalism. In this new research he found much inspiration in the works of the liberal Englishman Hobson, but also in the book on Imperialism and World Economy, partially published in 1915, by a young Bolshevik theoretician Nikolai Bukharin, which he freely borrowed from for his own 1916 work on Imperialism – the Highest Stage of Capitalism.

Lenin and Bukharin however were not always in close agreement (such as on the question of national liberation where Bukharin was then much closer to the position of Rosa Luxemburg). In fact, the original journal Kommunist of 1915 only appeared once, because Lenin refused to cooperate with it after reading an article by Karl Radek on the self-determination of nations. This article was also close to the position of Luxemburg and was fully supported by Bukharin, and his associates, Piatakov and Bosch. The three of them carried their fight to the Central Committee defending their internationalist position against Lenin. They stated that “the only correct tactic was to ‘revolutionise the consciousness of the proletariat’ by ‘continually tossing the proletariat into the arena of world policy.’”

Lenin considered that they were not Marxists whilst Bukharin himself was politically “unstable” because “The War has pushed him toward semi-anarchistic ideas”. (The quotation and what follows is from Stephen F. Cohen Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution p.37)

Their opposition was soon to be played out again in the hotly debated issue of the state. This led, in early 1916, to another refusal by Lenin to be associated with Bukharin’s thinking. The sticking point here was an article Bukharin submitted for a Social Democratic Collection (Sbornik) controlled by Lenin. Lenin assumed Bukharin would write on economics but instead he drafted Toward a Theory of the Imperialist State. This was a brilliant document which does indeed show the impact of the war in radicalising Bukharin’s thinking:

It is at this very moment – when state power is “murdering and destroying” the peoples for the sake of the business affairs of the ruling classes, when the most acute class struggle must become the slogan of the day for the proletariat of all countries – that the patriotic Gentlemen are putting dots over all of the ‘Is.’ In foreign policy they are becoming the ardent supporters of armaments, and by implication of imperialist slaughter; in domestic policy they are emerging as the apologists of civil peace. Once they adhered to the slogan “Peace for the huts and war upon the palaces! “; now they have another version, “Peace for the palaces and war upon other people’s huts!” An orientation toward the class interests of the international proletariat has been replaced by an orientation toward the interests of the imperialist state. The one time priests of freedom, the democrats and the socialists, have prostrated themselves before the boots of the Generals; and it is only in mockery that one can say they “did not lick the feet or even the hands of the strong.” Choking with emotion, they are in fact licking both the hands and the feet of the “strong” with equal zeal.

His survey of the role of the state was, for its day, far ahead of anything that had appeared since the death of Engels. Lenin’s worst fears, though, must have been confirmed by its conclusion:

Thus, the society of the future is a society without a state organisation. Despite what many people say, the difference between Marxists and anarchists is not that the Marxists are statists whereas the anarchists are anti-statists. The real difference in views of the future structure is that the socialists see a social economy resulting from the tendencies of concentration and centralisation, the inevitable companions of development of the productive forces, whereas the economic utopia of the decentralist-anarchists carries us back to pre-capitalist forms. The socialists expect the economy to become centralised and technologically perfected; the anarchists would make any economic progress whatever impossible. The form of state power is retained only in the transitional moment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, a form of class domination in which the ruling class is the proletariat. With the disappearance of the proletarian dictatorship, the final form of the state’s existence disappears as well.(3)

What Bukharin was doing was driving a coach and horses through the opportunism and revisionism of Social Democracy, and demonstrating its deviation from the revolutionary core of Marxism. He was not alone in this. Pannekoek in Holland and Hoglund in Sweden had both underlined the ultimate anti-statism in Marxism but Bukharin was the first Bolshevik to do so. Lenin, though, refused (with “sadness”) to publish Bukharin’s essay on the grounds that he could not accept that “social democracy must strongly emphasize its hostility to state power”. (Cohen p.39) However it was clear that Lenin at this point had not thought about the issue as deeply as Bukharin. He began his own study of the question in December 1916 and “The result was a volte face in his thinking”. (Cohen p. 42)

By February 1917 Lenin was beginning to realise that Bukharin and not Kautsky was right after all. Bukharin, in a footnote to his essay, when it was finally published in 1925 explained how Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife, was finally able to inform him of Lenin’s change of approach.

When I arrived in Russia from America, I saw Nadezhda Konstantinovna (this was at our illegal Sixth Congress, when V. I. was in hiding); and her first words were as follows: “V.I. asked me to tell you that he no longer has any disagreements with you on the question of the state.” Dealing with this question Ilich came to the same conclusions regarding the “explosion,” but he developed this theme and his subsequent teaching concerning the dictatorship so fully as to constitute an entire epoch in the development of theoretical thought in this area. – N.B.

Lenin was even then working on his own work, The State and Revolution: The Marxist Theory of the State and the Tasks of the Proletariat in the Revolution. Its publication would bring down the same accusations of anarchism from Mensheviks, and revisionists like Kautsky, as Lenin had earlier aimed at Bukharin.

The State and Revolution was no passing polemical whim but seen by Lenin as one of his most important works. This is why he asked Kamenev in the summer of 1917 that if he was “bumped off” by the Provisional Government to collect his notebook for it from Sweden and publish it. This undermines the comments of those like Chomsky who think that Lenin was “lying” and just using State and Revolution as a sop to win support until he got into power. It is a common prejudice of anarchists who never look at (and don’t want to look at) what really happened in the first six months of the Revolution.

The first thing that has to be said is that apart from nationalisation of the banks and workers' control (by which they meant mainly supervision of the bosses) the Bolsheviks had no economic programme for transforming Russia. This was logical. They knew that without a world revolution the Russian working class could never create socialism from the feeble base of Russian capitalism. They assumed they would be administering some form of capitalism until the revolution broke out in the real centres of capitalist power.

However, the Bolsheviks had only been in a position to overthrow the Provisional Government because there was an intense class struggle going on in the factories and fields across Russia. This did not stop simply because the Provisional Government had been overthrown. In the factories the workers faced open sabotage by the owners and soon either took them over themselves or demanded their nationalisation by the Soviet government. This initially took the Bolsheviks by surprise but they not only welcomed it, they encouraged it.

All through the winter of 1917-18 Lenin himself used every occasion to hammer home the same message.

Creative activity at the grassroots is the basic factor of the new public life. Let the workers set up workers’ control at their factories. Let them supply the villages with manufactures in exchange for grain … Socialism cannot be decreed from above. Its spirit rejects the mechanical bureaucratic approach: living creative socialism is the product of the masses themselves.

Collected Works, Moscow 1964, Vol. 26 p.288

And again

There was not and could not be a definite plan for the organisation of economic life. Nobody could provide one. But it could be done from below, by the masses, through their experience. Instructions would, of course, be given and ways indicated but it was necessary to begin simultaneously from above and from below.

Collected Works, Vol. 26 pp.365-6

And finally

It is important for us to draw literally all working people into the government of the state. It is a task of tremendous difficulty. But socialism cannot be implemented by a minority, by the Party. It can only be implemented by tens of millions when they have learned to do it for themselves.

Collected Works, Vol 27 p.135

It seems as though the semi-state that Bukharin and Lenin theorised was coming into existence, and that in the soviets the working class had found the way to have a body to suppress the old ruling class without creating a new state power, but instead one that would wither away or transform itself into a coordinator of the producers in a classless society.

As everyone knows it did not last. The multi-fold pressures of a backward capitalist economy which had been devastated and distorted by three years of warfare and the isolation of the Russian workers in the face of invasions from at least fourteen imperialist powers undermined the social experiments of the early months of the revolution. Kommunist No. 1 was published at precisely the point where the “heroic period of the revolution” began to go into reverse. The retreat took the form of creating new statist organisations like the Cheka and Red Army, the manipulation of soviet elections and an emphasis on productionism which required a retreat from the workers managing industry themselves. In due course it was to lead to the state capitalist monstrosity which history records as the USSR.

The precise actual point when the revolution began to retreat is difficult to pinpoint and many historians have debated it for years. For our purposes here the first indication that Lenin was abandoning his earlier enthusiasm for class initiative was in The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government which was published on April 28 1918 (but an earlier unpublished draft was completed on March 30). That is, before the second phase of the civil war had begun and after the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

The debate on the latter seems to have impressed on some senior Bolsheviks (Lenin among them) that the economic crisis had to be fixed. Hitherto all objections by some Bolsheviks (and many Mensheviks) that workers' control was creating economic chaos had been answered with the argument that this was all part of the working class learning process.

However, by March 1918 the bread situation was worse than ever, and industrial production was about one fifth of the 1913 level. The Bolsheviks were getting the blame. Hence Lenin was now focussing on “the terrible state of ruin, the unemployment and the famine we inherited from the war”. (Collected Works Vol. 27 p.243) The new emphasis was on measures to revive the economy, measures which reverted to capitalist management techniques and the introduction of specialists on much higher wages. Lenin recognised that this was “a step backward on the part of our soviet Socialist power” but his discourse is now different. Although he twice pays lip service to the idea that the self-activity of the working class was still important, “accounting”, “iron discipline”, and “compulsory labour service” are repeated much more often. Finally Lenin concludes that

The task that the Soviet government must set the people, in all its scope, is — learn to work. The Taylor system, the last word of capitalism in this respect, like all capitalist progress, is a combination of the refined brutality of bourgeois exploitation and a number of the greatest scientific achievements in …, the elaboration of correct methods of work, the introduction of the best system of accounting and control, etc.

op. cit. p.259

These steps were anathema to the Left Communists and, in the review that follows, Bukharin is gently reminding Lenin of the danger of the new course in the revolution after March 1918. However, in his reply to the Left Communists, Lenin makes it clear that the dire economic situation, and the need to defend the Soviet Republic from all kinds of enemies whilst waiting for an international revolution, had altered his perceptions. In the columns of Pravda he derided the Kommunist writers as “naïve”, “szlachcic” (i.e. like romantic Polish noblemen – we would call them “quixotic”) and “petty bourgeois”, not just for their opposition to the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, but also for their critique that Russia was heading for state capitalism not socialism.

Although the definition of ‘state capitalism’ at this time was different from its later use, the key statement by Lenin was that, “state capitalism would be a step forward” for the Soviet Republic. There was no previous working class experience at this point to contradict him but, as it turned out, the concept opened the way to state building rather than anything else. Certainly no-one at the time considered that state capitalism would in fact turn out to be a barrier to genuine working class revolution, however and wherever it developed around the world in the epoch of imperialism.

But, in arguing for it in 1918, Lenin was not above misquoting himself. Castigating Left Communist objections to the imposition of Taylorism and the control of one-man management he wrote

This control must be established not only over ‘the insignificant capitalist minority, over the gentry who wish to preserve their capitalist habits’ but also over the workers ‘who have been thoroughly corrupted by capitalism.’

Left Wing Childishness and the Petty Bourgeois Mentality, in Collected Works, Vol. 27 p.353-4

The quotation marks are Lenin quoting himself from The State and Revolution as a direct reply to Bukharin’s awkward reminder of his earlier position on the need to smash the state. This obviously stung Lenin, but precisely why, Lenin (for once) did not make clear to the casual reader. Instead he quoted further passages from The State and Revolution in an attempt to show that he had not changed his mind since the summer of 1917. But his earlier insights are here quoted out of context. In The State and Revolution his remarks about “corrupted” workers were clearly aimed at only a minority of the class. Lenin was now expressing the belief that, on its own, the Russian working class was, as a whole, not sufficiently culturally developed to create the basis for socialism.

Thus the economic crisis inherited from years of war undermined the early hopes of the Bolsheviks. This was soon compounded by a civil war. The longer it ground on, and the longer they had to wait for the world revolution, the further they departed from the ideal of The State and Revolution. It was not just Lenin who succumbed to state building at this time.

Bukharin, in his May 1920 book Economics of the Transition Period, seems well aware of the contrast between the self-activity of the working class and the situation that soviet power has arrived at by that time. However what he was now arguing was that

…the revolutionary class is most organised when it has constituted itself as a state power. For this reason state power constitutes the ‘concentrated and organised force in society.’

State power though he tells us where “The proletarian vanguard actively leads the others”, and carries out “the compulsory self-discipline of the working people.” (op.cit. pp. 151 and 155-6)

Bukharin clearly did not think this was communism. That would only come about when “External coercive measures will begin to die out ...” (op cit p.172) but what was created by 1920 in Russia was the very opposite of what both he and Lenin had argued for until March 1918. The arrival of the world revolution might have prevented further degeneration but even with assistance from the rest of the world proletariat it would have taken a long time for the working class movement of 1917-18 to revive from its sad dénouement at the end of the civil war.

Notes to the Introduction

(1) This current translation is part of our project to translate all of Kommunist into English. See leftcom.org

(2) See leftcom.org for more on this.

(3) Both quotes from marxists.org

Review: Lenin, The State and Revolution

Lenin, The State and Revolution: The Marxist Theory of the State and the Tasks of the Proletariat in the Revolution [Zhizn’ i Znaniye (Life and Knowledge) 2 roubles 50 kopeks]

The works of comrade Lenin need no recommendation but we would like to draw special attention to this one. From the point of view of substance, there is nothing new. But at the same time almost everything is new. Social democracy has been so successful in disfiguring and distorting the revolutionary communist teaching of Marx that, as comrade Lenin puts it so well, we are obliged to engage in comprehensive studies to rediscover the real thinking of the founders of scientific communism.

This book is not only interesting from the point of view of the simple restoration of their ideas. It is hot news because the question of the relationship between the proletariat and the state is the crucial question posed by the revolutionary action of the class. This question is of huge importance today because the World War has posed it directly for the proletariat. In fact, the very issue of the defence of the country is the corollary of the defence of the bourgeois state; the national question hangs on support for this State or, at least, in benevolent neutrality towards it, etc. All these partial questions, whatever their importance, are resolved according to the response given to the primary problem of the relations of the proletariat with the bourgeois state which gives itself the extraordinary name of the fatherland. The practical importance of this question becomes even more important because of the following: firstly because the state power of the bourgeoisie of all the advanced capitalist countries has been greatly strengthened by absorbing the economic organisations (unions, trusts, etc.); and then, because the proletariat must resolve, in practice, the question of taking power, that is to say, its dictatorship.

The central problems grouped in comrade Lenin's book, posed and solved by Marx and Engels, are those which follow: 1) what is the state; 2) what is the role of the state in the future communist society; 3) what is the role of the state in the transitional phase of the proletarian dictatorship; 4) what is the difference between the proletarian dictatorship and an ordinary type of state (in form and content); 5) how does the proletariat take power; and finally, 6) what should the proletarian attitude towards the bourgeois state apparatus be.

Marx and Engels give absolutely categorical answers to these questions which are in total contradiction with the practice of social democracy. (It is for this reason that Lenin, in his book, makes a clear distinction between Communists and Social Democrats.)

According to Marx, the state is the instrument of class oppression, the organisation of the ruling class. The Social Democrats say the state is, more or less, the representative of all the people.

No state will exist in communist society since all differences between classes will disappear, say the founders of scientific communism. "The Future State" is the Social Democratic "ideal".

During the transitional period between capitalism and socialism, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the proletarian state is necessary to definitively break the bourgeoisie, it exists as an instrument to ensure the subjection of the bourgeoisie. Social Democrats rage when we begin to put into practice Marx’s ideas.

The dictatorship of the proletariat is not a parliamentary republic with all its trappings, it is a Commune-state without police, without a permanent army, without officials, etc., say the masters of revolutionary socialism. The Social Democrats proclaim "Nothing beyond the bourgeois republic!"

Marx and Engels taught us that to build the dictatorship, to conquer political power, it is necessary to break, shatter, blow up, the state apparatus of the bourgeoisie. The social democrats say that to win power, it is necessary to maintain the state apparatus almost as it is because it is a crime to “disorganise the army, the instruments of domination, etc”.

The struggle against the bourgeois state until it is destroyed, hatred for it as the main mechanism of oppression – that's the slogan of our venerable predecessors. The servile social democrats submissively teach support for this state, its true patriotism and “state wisdom”.

Basically, this is the difference between the teaching of revolutionary Marxists, that is to say, communists, and that of social-opportunist traitors who have turned their backs on the teaching of Marxism and who swear by the name of Marx but at the same time betray his teaching in the most cynical way.

Lenin's little book perfectly shows this difference. And the reader cannot blame the author for extensively quoting the works of Marx and Engels. These works silence these vile slaves of capital who say they are social democrats, as they silence all the Mensheviks, the SRs, the Bundists, the followers of Scheidemann and Novaya Zhizn (New Life) who dare to speak on behalf of the great masters.

Today every comrade has to read Lenin's book.

N. Bukharin

Thursday, February 21, 2019

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