Lenin and the Bolshevik Experience

  • Paul Bellis


Lenin’s best-known and most extended treatment of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the transition period is to be found in his 1917 text The State and Revolution, written immediately before the Bolshevik Party’s seizure of power. The point of departure for this work is Marx’s assertion, in The Civil War in France, that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes’. Following the conclusion to which Marx and Engels had been led in their appraisal of the Commune, Lenin argued that the proletariat must, on seizing power, smash and destroy the existing state apparatus, as the political form in which was inscribed its own socio-economic subjugation.


State Apparatus Soviet System Soviet State October Revolution Capitalist Mode 
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  1. 1.
    Anderson has argued in a recent essay that ‘Lenin never mistook the class character of Tsarism: he always expressly insisted, against Menshevik opponents, that Russian absolutism was a feudal State machine’. (Perry Anderson, ‘The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci’, New Left Review, no. 100 (November 1976–January 1977), pp. 5–78). While Anderson cites a number of Lenin’s works which are apparently supportive of this thesis, there certainly exist explicit references in his writings to the bourgeois character of the state apparatus of the Tsarist autocracy (see, e.g. Lenin, ‘Better’, p. 711, in which he refers to the ‘bureaucratic capitalist state machine’ of Tsarist Russia). Anderson considers that The Russian Revolution was not made against a capitalist state at all. The Tsarism which fell in 1917 was a feudal apparatus: the Provisional Government never had time to replace it with a new or stable bourgeois apparatus. The Bolsheviks made a socialist revolution, but from beginning to end they never confronted the central enemy of the workers’ movement in the West. (Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State, (London, 1974), p. 359).Google Scholar
  2. Whatever the merits of this thesis (for a critique of which see Paul Hirst, ‘The Uniqueness of the West’, Economy and Society, vol. IV (1975), pp. 446–75), it can be acknowledged that superficially, at least, the Tsarist state resembled the Bonapartist apparatus whose destruction Marx had urged in his major work on the Commune. What they undoubtedly do have in common, together with the contemporary bourgeois state apparatus, is that they all maintain the separation of the masses from power and thereby contribute to the reproduction of their essential dependence and subordination. Clearly, however, the analysis of the specific morphologies of different state apparatuses is a task to which revolutionaries must address themselves.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 2.
    Tony Cliff, Lenin, vol. I: Building the Party (London, 1975), p. 164.Google Scholar
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    V. I. Lenin, Theses and Report on Bourgeois Democracy and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, presented to the First Comintern Congress, 4 March 1919, CW, XXIX, 457–74. An essentially similar appraisal is contained in the Draft Party Programme written by Lenin: see CW, XXIX, 108. Lenin was clearly wrong, however, in regarding the exclusion of the bourgeoisie from participation in elections as one of the determinants of the socialist character of soviet democracy (see, e.g. Lenin, ‘Tasks’, p. 427), although this was arguably less an affirmation of principle than a rationalisation of the outcome of an exigency. Tendentially, such a proscription can only generate an uncontrollable dynamic of political repression. It is necessary to insist, as does a recent U.S.F.I. resolution, that under the dictatorship of the proletariat ‘freedom of political organization should be granted all those, including probourgeois elements, who in actual practice respect the constitution of the workers’ state …’.(‘Socialist Democracy and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’, Inprecor, no. 10 new series (7 July 1977), pp. 3–15.)Google Scholar
  5. 10.
    See Daniel and Gabriel Cohn-Bendit, Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative (Harmondsworth, 1969), p. 233;Google Scholar
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  7. Robert V. Daniels, ‘The “Withering Away of the State” in Theory and Practice’, in Soviet Society: A Book of Readings, edd. Alex Inkeles and Kent Geiger (Boston, 1961), pp. 22–43, and Sawer (1977), pp. 222 ff.Google Scholar
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    Wright has emphasised the inadequacy of Lenin’s understanding of the effectivity of organisational forms and the ‘curious irony’ that while he ‘correctly understands that bureaucratic organizations are not technically necessary, but rather are socially generated by the political imperatives of class domination … his explanations of continuing bureaucracy after the re-volution are primarily in terms of economic and ideological (cultural) factors, not political ones’. (Erik Olin Wright, Class, Crisis and the State, London, 1978, p. 221).Google Scholar
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    N. Osinsky, ‘On the Building of Socialism’, Kommunist, no. 2 (April 1918), p. 5, cited in Daniels (1960), pp. 85–6.Google Scholar
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  12. 21.
    Alexandra Kollontai, The Workers’ Opposition (London, 1968), p. 38.Google Scholar
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  14. 24.
    V. I. Lenin, The Conditions for Admitting New Members to the Party (Letter to V. M. Molotov), 20 March 1922. Lenin. CW, XXXIII. 256–8.Google Scholar
  15. 25.
    Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks (London, 1971), p. 238.Google Scholar

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© Paul Bellis 1979

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