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notes on Lenin, The State and Revolution (1917)

I am writing with some notes towards discussion of Lenin's The State and Revolution (1917).

The first point to make is that this is least controversial of the three texts by Lenin we read in the group, the other two being What is to be done? (1902) and "Left-Wing" Communism: an infantile disorder (1920). (Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism [1916] is also somewhat controversial.)

There are potentially 3 Lenins: vanguardist; utopian; and conservative. These correspond to the 1902, 1917, and 1920 texts, respectively. Of the three, the first, vanguardist, is the one on which controversy rests most strongly. Liberals and Right-social democrats prefer the Lenin of "Left-Wing" Communism, which we will read in coming weeks. "Council communists" and anarchists point to the vanguardist and conservative Lenins as the authoritarian and statist, respectively.

So the Lenin of 1917 remains in a sense the most acceptable -- but perhaps the most enigmatic, for those who criticize Lenin cannot square their critiques with his pamphlet on The State and Revolution.

So, what is the essential content of this text? Of course the strong memory of Marx needs to be remarked upon up-front. For Lenin, as well as Luxemburg and Trotsky, what was remarkable about the pseudo-"Marxism" of Kautsky et al. was the forgetting of the Paris Commune and Marx's take on it in 1871, what Marx and Engels meant when they stated unequivocally that if anyone wanted to know what their conception of the "dictatorship of the proletariat" meant, they should look to the Commune.

Between 1871 and 1917, the Russian Revolution of 1905 occurred, in a sense confirming and securing this memory of Marx by LLT. The emergence of soviets/workers' councils restored the revolutionary Marxist traditions of 1848 and 1871, but 1871 remained somewhat undigested -- 1848 figured more strongly, as we found in the texts on 1905 by Trotsky and Luxemburg.

Why was this so? Because while avoidance of the revolution was the evident hallmark of the "revisionists," Bernstein et al., this was done in terms of the obsolescence of 1848 rather than of 1871. 1871 was left out of the "revisionism" debate, obscured by Engels's admission that the Commune's fate had shown the passing of the effective phenomenon of "fighting at the barricades," what had figured in 1848 (and before that, 1830).

But the way revolution in (1871 and) 1848 had been discussed said nothing about the nature of the post-revolutionary "state" in the revisionism controversy. The 2nd Intl. Marxists had allowed themselves to be painted into a corner by the anarchists of being "statists." Marx had only made a cryptic critique of this opening to attack on the SPD (for being statist Lassalleans, despite everything Marx had achieved) in his Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875).

Note how little Lenin thinks he is introducing anything new into this discussion: it is all "orthodoxy," quoting Marx and Engels against Kautsky et al. In a sense, he was not being innovative. But in another sense, he was (as Korsch observed about both Luxemburg and Lenin in "Marxism and Philosophy," that the transformation of Marxism was done under the auspices of its restoration).

So, the most important point Lenin is making is the "withering away" of the state, an important thought figure for LLT more generally. For the state is fundamentally transformed, but there is continuity as well as change.

Lenin's point is that a Marxian approach to the state (etc.) is symptomological. It becomes a question of regarding the state as a symptom of capitalism. The revolution here is understood as an opening towards and the very initial beginning of a process of transformation of the withering away of capitalism under the leadership and government of the working class.

For Lenin is clear that "bourgeois right" will continue under socialism. It will not be abolished but wither away. And it is the survival of this bourgeois right, or, the mediation of society in economic and political forms of the subjectivity of the commodity of labor, that social existence will still be justified on the basis of labor, which will necessitate something like a "state."

This latter aspect of Lenin's argument is the most esoteric -- and hence the most important for us. It is usually neglected by most readers, who only find Lenin's "utopian" revolutionary enthusiasm. But the neglect of Lenin's central argument, about the state -- organized repressive force -- being symptomatic of capital, is potentially the most controversial point. The only reason it is not is that it is overlooked -- deliberately.

For Lenin's point about a Marxian approach to the state implies a whole theory of capital that is fundamentally at odds with most "Marxism." And this is being made explicit in a rare way in Lenin's pamphlet, securing its continued importance. Like most "classics" (for instance, Marx's Capital) it is universally regarded as significant while the true character of its significance is forgotten, a kind of repression through pseudo-recognition and banalization, a psychological defense mechanism against the real challenges such insights might pose. Lenin is offering a radically different conception of understanding the relationship between capitalism and politics than is available common-sensically.

Revolution means not the realization of politics but opening the path to its fundamental transformation. The capitalists and "their" form of state governance need to be overthrown in order to pose the problem of working class "participatory democratic" politics forthrightly -- for the first time with clarity. It is the role of Marxists as "revolutionaries" to help facilitate this fundamental transformation of social politics that comes with the empowerment of the working class. It was Lenin's greatness, as a 2nd Intl. radical, to recognize the forerunner and basis for this in Marx's revolutionary politics.

It is Platypus's mandate to make the esoteric explicit, and press the repressed content to the surface, so that we can recognize the depth of the phenomena and problems that had been registered in the political thought and action of Marx and the best Marxists.