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10/25 Notes on Lenin’s The State and Revolution

Lenin’s The State and Revolution, is a historically- and theoretically-engaged work that provides extraordinary analytical clarity regarding state power.  Writing against the liberal conceptions that consider the state above society, an impartial entity that reconciles class antagonism, Lenin asserts that the state, as a manifestation of irreconcilable class antagonism, is necessarily the dictatorship of a single class and can never be autonomous from social struggle. He emphasizes that modern state power rests on three institutions: the bureaucracy, the army and the bourgeoisie.  Distilled to these pillars, this centralized state can only serve class dictatorship, which will “wither away” and become “dormant” as a new politics emerges from the ruins of the capitalist past.

In a fascinating polemic with anarchists over the means for radical political change from capitalism to this end, Lenin asserts that political relations of power and authority cannot be transformed immediately. It is as if the capitalist state can be smashed “at once”, with freedom asserting itself “naturally” — as if humans are free by nature and the only thing to do is to remove the obstacles and repressive mechanisms of the modern state. Freedom is not a returnof the human to his/her nature where he/she is free by definition. Freedom is the future which demands a radical political-economic transformation and reconfiguration of social relations and means of realizing life potentialities. In this sense the expropriation of rents aims to enable the formation of new social relations on the basis of material transformations.  In relation to that, we wonder, how does Lenin address the question of authority and autonomy? He does not see necessarily a contradiction between the two, which the liberal theories often assume. Autonomy is not that which is essentially against any presence of authority. The relationship between authority and autonomy (here one may rather think of freedom instead of autonomy) is both a pragmatic and theoretical concern.  On a pragmatic level, the complex machinery of industrial society necessitates some level of subordination and authority in order to function properly. The same can be said of the state machinery. It is on these grounds that a disavowal of state power is itself a disavowal of revolution. If “authority and autonomy are relative concepts” (56) and are not necessarily oppositional, this also raises interesting questions not just tactically, but theoretically, about the contextual nature of politics, power, and subjectivity.

Anticipating both revolution and counter-revolution, Lenin also addresses the problematic of capturing the state apparatuses and exercising state power. He suggests that the state must be smashed, and then retained, and that violent force is required at both stages, before the state withers away.  Here, we sense a certain tension central to The State and Revolution – how can the state be both smashed and retained by the same actor? Or to put it differently, what is it that could be smashed and retained or redeployed at the same moment? Moreover, how can state power be exercised and replaced with something new, when “all previous revolutions perfected the state machine” (26)? More perfection? Modification of the state? A new “transitional” state form, which will gradually undo itself?  For Lenin, this – and not the withering away of the state – “is the very nub of the eradication of the state as a state” (18).  This tension is manifest, as well, in Lenin’s discussion of forms of democracy.

Anytime Lenin encounters a question concerning the political future, he refers to the historical analysis of Marx and Engels (of the Paris Commune, in particular), noting: “Marx did not set out to discover the political forms of the future.  He limited himself to a precise observation of French history” (50), a historical experience which should be relearned for the future forms of the political. With this in mind, we ask how Lenin’s concepts help us to observe more precisely contemporary struggles, iterations of state power, and horizons of political thought. How could we make sense of the class formations at present and their relation to the state in light of Lenin’s view of the proletariat (which is both already there as the popular class basis of the Proletariat’s Dictatorship, and is the subject which is to become the subject of the October Revolution) and of the vanguard party, and notions of authority and freedom? Who is today the subject of revolution? And what is the concept of revolution?  Where and when? What sort of macroscopic anomalies, such as the postcolonial state, defy – and force us to rethink – both the bourgeois-state relation and the institutions that support state power more generally?  Also, Lenin provides an incisive account of the repressive forces necessary to replace the state’s standing army with a popular one. Given the preponderant force of the Communist Party following the Bolshevik Revolution, did the dissolution of the bureaucracy actually prove more difficult to anticipate or realize? What does this tell us about modern state power?

Lastly, how does this work relate to imperialism?  How could the state ever be conceived without considering the international relations in which it functions? How could the socialist state wither away when other states do not? How could the state be theorized without considering the forces of imperialism that work both from within and without the nation-state? How useful is it to think Lenin’s conception of the state (as an expression and instrument of class antagonism, of repression of other class forces; an organizational apparatus enabling the transition to Communism) with the postcolonial state form?

– Saygun Gokariksel, Mark Drury

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