Lenin wrote The State and Revolution between August and October of 1917, while he was living and organizing underground, hiding from the police. He pushed through these difficult circumstances to write the pamphlet not in order to intervene in the revolutionary process–as it wasn’t published until after the October Revolution–but rather to militate against the distortions of Marxism that were gaining strength in the international workers’ movement. The goal was to reclaim Marxism as a theory and guide for revolution and not reformism.
Most of Lenin’s studying that went into the book took place earlier that year, when he returned to Marx’s and Engels’ writings on the state and state power. What is the state? Is there a class character to the state? Could the revolution use the existing state apparatus or did it have to be smashed? What would take its place? How would the state “wither away” in the transition from socialism to communism?
In “How The State and Revolution changed history,” Brian Becker writes that the book’s theoretical lessons weren’t constrained to Russia alone but to “all modern revolutions that seek to overturn power in bourgeois society, and because Lenin and the Bolsheviks actually succeeded in making the revolution,” the book “was embraced in the early 1920s by the international communist movement as a guiding document for the revolutionary struggles of the working class.”
For revolutionaries worldwide, The State and Revolution became the “new manifesto of the 20th century.” In the 21st century, the topic remains a pivotal one for revolutionaries. For example, the book provides crucial theoretical weapons in the movement against racism, white supremacy, and police terror today. The Party for Socialism and Liberation republished The state and revolution as part of our book, Revolution Manifesto: Understanding Marx and Lenin’s Theory of Revolution in 2015 because of how pivotal the question of state power remains. Revolution manifesto includes new chapters by PSL comrades that clarifies Lenin’s theses and provides additional historical context from other revolutions. Liberation School published a series of classes on Revolution Manifesto that cover the six new chapters. In this study guide, we help readers make their way through Lenin’s original text and draw out its relevance and applicability for today. For one example, see the PSL’s 2020 statement on police abolition.
We also recommend reading The State and Revolution together with “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder,” which we have a study and discussion guide and other resources for here.
Preface to the First and Second Editions
- What does Lenin mean by “opportunism” and “social chauvinism?”
- What are the problems with opportunism and social chauvinism?
- Are opportunism and social chauvinism problems today? Why or why not?
Chapter I: Class society and the state
- How do opportunists use Marxism? Can you think of other revolutionaries to whom this happens?
- Why does the state come into being, according to Engels?
- What does it mean to say that class antagonisms are irreconcilable? Does it mean that they are impossible to solve?
- Why are the standing army and the police so important for state power?
- What are some ways that the state is as an instrument to exploit workers and oppressed people today?
Chapter II: The experience of 1848-51
- Why is Marx’s concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat one of his most important?
- What do you think about its relevance for today?
- Are socialist reformers and utopians betraying the interests of the working class? Why or why not?
- How did the bourgeois state come into being?
- What distinction does Lenin make between opportunists and revolutionaries at the end of the chapter?
Chapter III: Experience of the Paris Commune of 1871
- Why did the Paris Commune compel Marx and Engels to revise what they had written in the Communist Manifesto in 1948? What did they originally write?
- Think about the current radical political landscape. How might the distinction between utilizing the state and smashing the state be relevant?
- Sometimes Marxism and Leninism are caricatured as being concerned only with the industrial working class. Based on what Lenin writes here, is this true?
- Lenin emphasizes about the importance of alliances in the Paris Commune. What alliances might you make in your own town or city?
- In what ways did the Paris Commune smash the state machine?
- What were some reasons for the defeat of the Paris Commune?
- What are Lenin’s objections with parliamentarism? What should replace parliamentarism?
- How have opportunists distorted Marx’s observations on the Paris Commune?
Chapter IV: Supplementary explanations by Engels
- How is the housing question dealt with under capitalism? How is it dealt with under socialism?
- Why does Lenin revisit Marx and Engels’ critique of anarchists? (pp. 152-155)
- What do Marx and Engels say about being “anti-authoritarian?”
- Does this critique have relevance for today? If so, discuss some struggles where it comes up and how the critique could inform your intervention.
- Lenin describes two different forms of democratic centralism in reference to Engels’ use of the term. What are they? Is this distinction important?
- What lessons does Engels draw from the commune in his 1891 preface to “The Civil War in France?”
- Why will democracy wither away together with the proletarian state? What does this tell us about democracy?
- Why do you think Lenin is going back to the Commune in this chapter?
Chapter V: The economic basis of the withering away of the state
- In what ways was Marx’s theory a theory of development? Why is this important?
- What kinds of changes took place in Marx’s understanding of the state?
- How should we understand the transition from capitalism to communism?
- What are the two stages of communism, and what are the differences between them?
- Toward the end of the chapter, Lenin talks about the change of “quantity into quality.” What does this phrase mean, and what does it have to do with the transition to communism?
Chapter VI: The vulgarization of Marxism by opportunists
- What is Lenin’s problem with Plekhanov’s pamphlet?
- How did Bernstein distort Marx’s insight on the state?
- What was Kautsky’s response to Bernstein here?
- Why do you think Lenin was so concerned with this issue?
- What does Lenin mean when he says that opportunists are fearful and anarchists are either impatient or blind? How does Marx teach us to avoid both of these errors?
- Why does Lenin refer to revolution as embodying a “creative power?”
- Read the last paragraph. Does this ending communicate the urgency of the question of the state? Does this urgency exist today?
- What are some current trends in the movement that correspond with the traditions Lenin critiques?
- What arguments from Lenin can you apply to intervene in your particular struggles to correct the movement’s understanding and direction?