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Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky role as political revolutionaries has long been celebrated. Yet their status as intellectual revolutionaries has been obscured through the decades by distance from their revolt and the patterns of political thought they upended, through anti-Marxist and intra-Marxist disputes, and Western academics who have long slighted their writings as inferior to the political events in which they were involved. Lenin’s The State and Revolution and Trotsky’s Results and Prospects were direct assaults on the evolutionary, static Marxism of the Second International and lay the basis for a new conception of revolutionary socialism, Marxism, and the historic tasks of the proletariat.
Georg Lukács, perhaps the most influential academic Marxist of the 20th century and whose work is the cornerstone of generations of radical thought, would write decades later “only the Russian Revolution really opened a window into the future; the fall of Czarism brought a glimpse of it, and with the collapse of capitalism it appeared in full view.” The Russian Revolution had opened a door to radical theory that allowed him to write shortly afterwards in “What Is Orthodox Marxism” that the materialist philosophy celebrated by socialists was, at heart, linked to a revolutionary dialectical method, and that whether or not Marx’s particular predictions had been proven true it was the method that mattered.
Yet the Marxism of 1917 was far from this interpretation of the dialectic; Lenin and Trotsky’s revolution would be the final blow to shatter its orthodoxy after years of rank decay during the First World War. Belle Époque socialist thought was tied to the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and its leadership and theorists, most famously Karl Kautsky. Second International Marxism was a reflection of the conditions in which the German SPD found itself: a rapidly expanding working class, growing union membership, socialist parliamentary electoral success, the spread of new scientific ideas and positivist philosophy, and a semi-autocratic state with some democratic openings. Mainline, Kautskyian Marxism was convinced the growth of socialist electoral success was the path to the working class’s eventual victory and socialism, paralleled by the development of capitalist industry into giant trusts that could be easily nationalized after the SPD won a majority in parliament. History was leading inevitably to the proletariat’s victory on an evolutionary path, hence Kautsky’s dictum in The Road to Power that the SPD was a “revolutionary, but not revolution-making” party.
Lenin and Trotsky were involved deeply in the intellectual ferment of the pre-war Second International as revolutionaries, part of the movement’s left-wing alongside others like Rosa Luxemburg who pushed for more radical tactics to prepare the proletariat for revolution. They were not the only ones who rejected the path charted by the SPD’s leadership: reformists urged abandoning pretense to revolutionary struggle, syndicalists mostly rejected party politics, and a variety of others were involved in broad discussions about the correct path to revolution. Lenin broke with mainstream socialist opinion and joined the left-wing advocating for the party’s role in preparing actively for a revolution, while it would take him longer to part with Kautsky on philosophical questions. Trotsky, working with Alexander Helphand Parvus, did so earlier – in 1906 while analyzing the previous year’s unsuccessful Russian Revolution.
The intellectual trajectories of Lenin and Trotsky paralleled but did not coincide until 1917. The major tension between them, the Bolshevik-Menshevik split, separated them politically even as their views on political revolution and the First World War narrowed. That Russian Marxism would produce thinkers to lead an intellectual revolution parallel alongside a political one should, in retrospect, make sense: the Kautskyian Marxism of the 2nd International was always an odd fit there. Russia was autocratic and did not allow for the easy adoption of the German model of a parliamentary socialist party, and the size of the industrial proletariat was minuscule compared to Western Europe. Yet Lenin’s The State and Revolution and Trotsky’s Results and Prospects encapsulated the intellectual revolution they had developed in the years leading to November 7, 1917, which would dissolve the old intellectual consensus and build a new, revolutionary one to buttress the rise of Soviet Marxism’s new political order.
The State and Revolution
Lenin began to revolutionize the Marxist theory of the state during the First World War. During the tumult of the conflict, he had fled to Switzerland and began a deep study of Hegel’s philosophical works. During this time he began to question the underpinnings of a socialism that had abandoned internationalism for war and patriotism. Along with Trotsky, he began to rethink the old stagist concepts of revolution in an era where the bourgeoisie had proven incapable of acting in a remotely progressive manner, but had committed the working classes of Europe to wholesale, reactionary slaughter for imperialist aims. This intellectual revolution meant assaulting the Kautskyian dogma that had defined Marxism for decades. Lenin would write The State and Revolution during his time hiding from the Russian government in the summer of 1917, and it would be a distillation of his thought on both the role of the proletariat in a revolution and the form a proletarian state would take afterwards.
The State and Revolution has as its antagonist the works of Karl Kautsky, specifically texts such as The Social Revolution and The Road to Power, which were extraordinarily important explanations of how the German Social Democratic party viewed its role and what the proletarian revolution would look like. In both, Kautsky saw a revolutionary party’s duty to extend the principle of (bourgeois) democracy to its limit. The socialist party would eventually take power through parliamentary elections and fully democratize society, eventually nationalizing industry that had already consolidated to a point that only state ownership would be necessary to make it socialist. Capitalism would be legislated out of existence. The party was revolutionary, but not revolution-making; it was an evolutionary doctrine that Kautsky preached, and one that took existing state-forms and used them for new ends.
Lenin was not the first to assault this evolutionary path to socialism, but his turn to Hegel during his stay in Switzerland was key to the brilliance of his argument. Within The State and Revolution we see him wrestle with the capitalist state as an extension of the hierarchical division of and alienation of labor within capitalism. His turn to Hegel was accompanied by a return to Marx and Engels on the state. What Lenin found was that Kautsky and the orthodox socialists of the Second International had ignored Marx’s analysis of the need to smash the bourgeois state apparatus and replace it with a new, revolutionary one – that one could not simply lay hold on the old bureaucracy and make it work for the proletariat.
As Marx wrote famously in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, and again in his discussion of the Paris Commune, the old state apparatus was part of the old social order, and built to defend the property rights of the capitalist class. To radically reorder society, a victorious working class would have to build its own state apparatus, what Marx had called the dictatorship of the proletariat. Kautsky and the orthodox Social Democrats of the era had shied away from this talk, to avoid upsetting a repressive German government, to increase their vote totals from more moderate members of the population, and because the leadership of the party represented the most successful part of the working class, who felt they had more to lose from radical revolt than they could gain from the status quo. Kautsky’s muddled vision of a victorious working class winning a majority in parliament and then enacting socialism was always an illusion.
Lenin took a hammer to this conception of the state. If the proletariat were to seize power, it would need to sweep away the old and replace it with institutions suited to its class rule. The first, and most important point would be that the state would represent the vast majority of people for the first time, and that its task would be to stop the old ruling class – a minority – from re-establishing its control. This was the meaning of dictatorship for Marx, and Lenin, and it was linked to the ancient Roman origins of the word – where dictators were named and given a few months of unlimited power to quell revolts, after which time they returned to their status as private citizens. A proletarian dictatorship would protect the masses and collectivized property from the unrest fomented by capitalists in the wake of a successful revolution. The state would also begin to “wither away,” a term used by Marx and Engels and which has met with much derision in ensuing years. Yet, Lenin simply meant that the proletarian state would cease to act as a repressive body on the vast majority, and that it would not longer have to mediate between the interests of a minority class and the majority. It would lose both its repressive character and would take on more of an administrative role, as there would not be the same form of political class struggle occurring within it.
We may disagree with Lenin about the extent of political disagreement in the new state between sections of the working class and, at the time, peasant allies on how best to distribute resources, and why that would call for multiparty workers’ democracy, but where the old state repressed the majority, maintained capitalist property and social relations, and attempted to smooth over the tensions caused by the class struggle, the new state would look far less like that and more like something new.
In fact Lenin saw the new state as having seven characteristics that would make it distinctly proletarian, eliminating the hierarchy and alienation of labor found within capitalism. It would be:
1. A Working Body Instead of a Parliament
2. A unified legislative and executive instead of divided powers
3. A body with immediate recall of delegates instead of irremovable officials
4. Delegates who worked at no more than the average working class wage rather than high salaries and career politicians
5. Simplified functions rather than bureaucracy
6. Rotation-in-office rather than rule-of-experts
7. A commune-state with centralized response rather than federalism
The manifestation of this were the workers’ councils (soviets). The working class would self-govern through a council government that devolved power to the workers and their delegates, who would be chosen from the shop-floor and local neighborhood, and be expected to work when not attending the council. Workers would be able to manage without the need for vast bureaucracies, and Lenin believed they should rotate in their tasks and as delegates so that everyone would have a chance to govern and limit the need for a class of experts separate from workers. The councils would rule at the local level, but be connected to a central government. It was a radical re-imagining of what a revolutionary state should look like, and was Lenin’s most heroic attempt to solve the problem of how the working class could solve the problem of de-alienating government alongside that of labor.
With this, Lenin tore up the 2nd International’s model of the state and revolution. He had moved further away from the stagist view that a bourgeois democracy would necessarily precede socialism. The revolution would be made by the proletariat, led by a revolutionary party. This was why Lenin was adamant that the Bolsheviks win a majority in the elections to the workers’ councils, but once they had, to smash the old state as quickly as possible and seize control for the soviets. At this point Lenin’s theory interlinks with that of Trotsky’s, and showcases how and why their intellectual revolution was as important as the political.
The Permanent Revolution
Leon Trotsky’s revolution against the Kautskyian conception of revolution, the proletariat’s role in it, and how political and economic development occurred within capitalism happened soon after the first, failed attempt at a Russian Revolution. Results and Prospects, written in 1906, was an attempt to explain why the working class had played such an important role in the attempted revolution of 1905. They were a minuscule portion of the population, and Russia was barely a capitalist country. According to socialist theories of the era, a bourgeois-democratic revolution – like America’s or France’s – would have to happen long before a socialist uprising. Yet the bourgeoisie had shrunk from what socialists saw as its historic tasks, and left those to the workers to carry in 1905.
Trotsky argued that the real trajectory of capitalism was one of combined and uneven development. Instead of one path, capitalism created situations where less technologically advanced nations could leapfrog centuries of development or compress them into a very small scope of time. Older social relations would co-exist alongside modern production methods. This was combined development. Capitalism would also unevenly develop whole areas of nations, especially in colonial or technologically less-advanced regions; places where raw materials could be extracted or large factories could be built to take advantage of cheap labor would be built up by foreign capital, leaving the rest of the region or nation backwards and underdeveloped. Since foreign investment would dominate, especially in colonial and peripheral areas, the native capitalists would be dependent upon that investment and would be loathe to encourage political and economic reforms that could jeopardize foreign capital.
Since the native capitalists was no longer capable of consistently supporting basic democratic demands, the task of doing so would fall to the revolutionary working class. Political time, like economic time, would be compressed. The proletariat would be forced to take power in order to solve basic democratic tasks, but it would be unable to stop at that stage, since their political rule would only be possible as part of a socialist uprising. Working class political rule would open the door to socialism quite rapidly.
Trotsky called this permanent revolution, borrowed from Marx’s 1850 Address to the Central Committee of the Communist League. Like Lenin, he had returned to Marx in order to build an intellectual revolution within Marxism. In fact Marx’s address argued that the then-small proletariat would be forced to take power alongside petty-bourgeois, or small capitalist, allies, and yet the workers should form a party independent of the small capitalists and push democratic demands to their furthest, to the point where socialism would be the next step. This was permanent revolution, and in a country like Russia with a majority of peasants and a small group of highly class-conscious workers, it was seen by Trotsky as the likely path to working-class revolution.
Because of combined and uneven development, revolts might happen in peripheral nations like Russia first because, while numerically small, the proletariat was the only consistently revolutionary force there, and native capitalists were universally conservative or reactionary. Yet Russia, or other technologically backward nations would need to foment revolution abroad in more advanced nations, as they could take power but would need the help of an advanced economy to build socialism.
The socialists of the Second International era had taken a quote from Marx’s famous Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, where he briefly describes economic eras in progression, and solidified it into a sacrosanct evolutionary model of development. Even Lenin and the Bolsheviks, prior to 1917, had believed in the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry,” as the first stage towards a socialist revolution. Trotsky upended this, and gave a more dynamic and realistic model of how capitalism had developed the world-system on an economic and political level. He also showed that the working class would have to solve democratic demands like national independence and land reform – tasks that were not strictly speaking socialist – at the same time, or on the path towards, socialism.
Conclusion: Lenin and Trotsky’s Intellectual Praxis
By spring of 1917 Lenin and Trotsky had coincided intellectually: Lenin’s April Theses acknowledged the need for a working-class led revolution and a post-revolutionary government organized on the soviets. Trotsky’s rapid rapprochement with the Bolsheviks after his return to Russia in May of 1917 showcase this point. The political revolution they led in November would not have been possible without the intellectual revolution they began. By shattering mainstream pre-war socialism’s intellectual foundations, they laid a path that provided a new basis for revolution and what post-revolutionary government could be (even if it rarely reached those heights in the 20th century). It is important in this centenary of the Russian Revolution that we remember both revolutions for their historic importance and for what they might tell us about our own future path, and what revolutions might be necessary in the 21st century.