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State and Revolution: Why we need to smash the state

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The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin wrote this book in the midst of the extreme violence of the First World War, and the revolutionary upheaval taking place in Russia in 1917.
Issue 2227
Lenin addresses a crowd during the revolution
Lenin addresses a crowd during the revolution

The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin wrote this book in the midst of the extreme violence of the First World War, and the revolutionary upheaval taking place in Russia in 1917.

It was written to win urgent arguments that were taking place about the way forward within the Russian revolutionary movement—just six months after it had overthrown the Tsarist dictatorship.

Like much of his writing, it was an agitational pamphlet for mass consumption, not an academic thesis.

The presence of real debate in the middle of a revolution gives an incredible sense of unity between theory and practice.

Lenin’s central argument is about the role and nature of the state. He argues that the state is not a neutral or benign force, and has not always existed.

Rather, it arose as society divided into classes, and was created to enforce the rule and interests of the dominant class.

The state appeared as a consequence of irreconcilable class differences. But it is not a simple mediator—its purpose is to impose order.

It is an instrument of oppression, existing to enable the capitalists’ exploitation of workers.

This may seem stark today, as the modern state includes mechanisms like schools, the NHS and welfare support.

But Lenin argues that at the core of the state are large bodies of armed people—the police and army.

These are attached to courts and prisons, institutions designed to deprive people of their freedom.

These institutions are not under any kind of democratic control, and are organised in strict hierarchies.

At the time of writing, some socialist parties in Russia wanted to stop the revolution after gaining control of the existing state—stopping short of overthrowing the system entirely.

They argued that socialism could be achieved by taking control of the state, and claimed that Marx’s ideas supported this position.

Lenin’s pamphlet was written to recover the real Marxist tradition.

He says that the idea that socialists can take control of the state and run it for their own means is a mistake. Once in power they will obstruct “every measure for curbing the capitalists” and will be “rewarded by the capitalists with lucrative jobs”.

It is tempting to think that good people in government can radically change society, but socialists find time and again that this is impossible.

Lenin argued that this showed the absolute necessity of revolution.

The capitalist state exists to protect a tiny minority—it is not fit for providing for the majority.

As such the working class cannot simply take control of it, but must smash it and replace it with a workers’ state—a “dictatorship of the proletariat”.

A workers’ state would be necessary to suppress the old ruling classes who would attempt to drown the revolution in blood.

But the workers’ state would be nothing like the existing state. It would be organised democratically, in all areas of society, not just politics.

It would not need unaccountable hierarchies, because there would be no elites to protect. It would not need large armies or police forces cut off from the mass of workers.

The workers’ state would allow full democracy and equality—so people would all have a say in the running of society, be expected to contribute to the social fund of wealth, labour, and so on, and would all get an equal share back.

But most importantly, the workers’ state would only be the beginning of transforming society.

Lenin argues that equality is not true freedom. Only once the way production is organised is changed could we eliminate scarcity—then society would be organised “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”.

Then people could live full, well-rounded lives, and the need for the state would wither away.

This vision of society is a far cry from the caricatures of Lenin as a power-hungry dictator.

Everyone should read this book—it is clear in its arguments, and gives us a glimpse of the urgency and excitement of revolution, and the possibility of human freedom.

Lenin never wrote the final chapter, as he was “interrupted by a political crisis—the October revolution of 1917”.

Read State and Revolution at

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