Marxism and the State – Part One
Written by Alan Woods
Saturday, 28 August 2010


The question of the State in capitalist society is of key importance for Marxists. We do not see it as an impartial arbiter standing above society. The fundamental essence of every state, with its “armed bodies of men”, police, courts and other trappings is that it serves the interests of one class in society, in the case of capitalism, the capitalist class. Here we start publication of a three-part article on the State by Alan Woods.


Marxism sets out from the idea that “force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one,” that the state consists ultimately of armed bodies of men, that it is an instrument of the ruling class for the oppression of other classes. We have never at any time denied that the working class, in moving to transform society will inevitably encounter the resistance of the possessing classes or that this resistance can under certain conditions result in civil war.


The state, in the last analysis, consists of armed bodies of men. Photo by philippe leroyer on Flickr.


Without the aid of the reformists, Stalinists and the trade union leaders, it would not be possible to maintain the capitalist system for any length of time. This is an important idea which we have to stress continually. The leaders of the trade unions and reformist parties in all countries have colossal power in their hands—far greater than at any other time in history. But as Trotsky explains, the labour bureaucracy is the most conservative force in society. They use their authority to support the capitalist system. That is why Trotsky said that in the last analysis, the crisis of humanity was reduced to a crisis of leadership of the proletariat.

The development of the productive forces has brought about a considerable increase in the relative weight of the working class within society. For all their heroism, the proletarian uprisings of the 19th century were in effect condemned to isolation and defeat as a result of the overwhelming preponderance of the peasantry and of the urban petite bourgeoisie, which gave a colossal advantage to the state apparatus of the ruling class. The uprising which led to the “Paris Commune” of 1871 fell victim to just these circumstances, and to make matters worse, the weakness of the Commune was compounded by a number of very serious shortcomings on the part of the leadership.

In the course of the century now coming to a close, the socialist revolution could have been accomplished many times over. And if, apart from the 1917 revolution against the tsarist empire, the working class has nowhere succeeded in achieving and holding onto power for any length of time, the explanation is to be found not in the level of development of the productive forces nor in the resulting balance of forces between the contending classes, but essentially in the political bankruptcy of the leadership of the workers’ organisations.

The socialist revolution has been delayed by the reformist degeneration of the leadership of the working class. But this has meant that the material foundation of the future socialist society (the general level of development of productive capacity and technique) which the working class in power will inherit from capitalism will be on an incomparably higher level than that which the Bolsheviks inherited from tsarism in 1917, or than that which the British, French, or German workers would have inherited had they succeeded in taking power in the 1920s or 1930s.

Together with the development of the means of production, there has been a sharp decline in small-scale ownership. The control of the economy has been concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, with a corresponding increase in the size of the working class. In France, for instance, at the time of the 1936 revolutionary crisis, half of the population earned its living from agriculture, whereas today the rural population is only 6% of the population as a whole. The wage-earning class has grown not only in numbers, but also in terms of its potential for struggle. A properly organised general strike under modern conditions would bring the economy of a given country to a complete standstill, particularly in the more economically developed areas of the world. The decisive question is that of the leadership and of the degree of preparation of the working class, both organisationally and politically.

What general conclusions can be drawn from what has been said above? Firstly, we can say that the increased level of urbanisation and the ever-higher degree of technical sophistication of industry means that the working class will find itself in a generally more favourable position at the outset of the revolution than was the case in the past. Secondly, as a general rule it can be said that the stronger the revolutionary party, the greater its success in rallying the working class to its programme and in winning the sympathy of the rank-and-file of the armed forces, then the more swiftly will it overcome the resistance of the ruling class and the less violence and loss of life will occur.

A peaceful transformation of society would be entirely possible if the trade union and reformist leaders were prepared to use the colossal power in their hands to change society. If the workers leaders did not do this, then there could be rivers of blood, and this would entirely be the responsibility of the reformist leaders.

As a matter of fact, as we shall see, the workers could have taken power in France, Italy, Spain, Britain and Germany, many times in the course of the last seven decades, if there had been a revolutionary party capable of performing this task. Many revolutionary opportunities have been lost through the betrayals of reformism and Stalinism. The working class may have to pay in blood for these crimes of the leadership. It all depends on the class balance of forces nationally and internationally, and above all on our ability to win over the decisive sections of the working class to the program of Marxism.

We have never at any time denied the possibility of violence and civil war under certain conditions. But, as against the bourgeois and the reformists who always try to frighten the workers with the spectre of violence and civil war, and the sects who lose no opportunity to advertise their enthusiasm for “bloody revolution,” thereby rendering a great service to the bourgeois and the reformists, we insist that we stand for a peaceful transformation of society, and place all the blame for any violence on the shoulders of the ruling class and the reformist leaders.

We make it absolutely clear that we are in favour of a peaceful transformation of society, that we are prepared to fight for such a transformation, but at the same time we warn that the ruling class will fight to defend its power and privileges. This is the traditional position of Marxism, which has been expounded hundreds of times in the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, and in the writings and speeches of the IMT.

Dialectics or formalism?

The basic position was outlined in State and Revolution, where Lenin writes:

“Marx’s idea is that the working class must break up, smash the ‘ready-made state machinery,’ and not confine itself merely to laying hold of it.”

Marx explained that the working class cannot simply base itself on the existing state power, but must overthrow and destroy it. That is ABC for a Marxist. But after the ABC, there are other letters in the alphabet. In State and Revolution, Lenin castigated the reformists for presenting the socialist revolution as a slow, gradual, peaceful change. But the same Lenin was capable of asserting in 1920 that in Britain, because of the enormous power of the proletariat and its organisations, it would be entirely possible to carry through the socialist transformation peacefully, and even through parliament, provided the trade unions and Labour Party were led by Marxists.

Lenin’s position on the revolution was concrete and dialectical, not formalistic and abstract. Lenin approached the revolution in the light of the concrete historical conditions prevailing in each country. Of course, the basic tasks of the proletariat remain the same in all countries. It is necessary for the working class to constitute itself as a class in and for itself, to possess a revolutionary party with a correct Marxist leadership; it is necessary to overcome the resistance of the exploiters; to smash the state, and so on.

Yet such general considerations, while perfectly valid and correct, do not at all exhaust the question of the concrete forms and stages by which the revolution will unfold, far less the specific tactics which must be pursued. These cannot be learned by rote like recipes from a revolutionary cookbook. Such a manual does not exist, and, if it did, would do more harm than good to those who attempted to use it.

The conditions in which the revolution unfolds will differ from one country to another, and from one period to another. That is obvious. And it is also obvious that the specific tactics of the revolutionary party will also differ according to these conditions. Such questions as the specific weight of the proletariat in the population, its relations to other classes, the strength of its organisations, its experience, cultural level, national traditions and temperament, all enter into the equation.

Above all, the decisive factor is the strength and maturity of the subjective factor—the revolutionary party and its leadership (although even this observation is not of absolute validity; there have been cases where the revolution has been carried out—though not consolidated—without a revolutionary party, as in the Paris Commune, Hungary 1956, or Venezuela today). This is the key question. But exactly how the party is built, and above all how it gains leadership of the mass movement is the most decisive question of all. We shall see later how the Bolshevik Party became the decisive factor in 1917, with what tactics and with what slogans.

The basic ideas of Marxism are the same as a hundred years ago. But our task is not to repeat half-digested ideas like a parrot, but to develop ideas creatively, and above all to be able to apply them to the living movement of the proletariat and its organisations. The latter do not exist outside of time and space. If we are not to become a sterile sect, but really to sink roots in the mass organisations, it is necessary to set out from the real labour movement and the working class as it has been historically conditioned at a given moment in time. This was always the method of the great Marxist thinkers of the past, as we will show.

How Marx and Engels posed the question

Basing themselves on the experience of the Paris Commune, Marx and Engels pointed out that:

“…One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes’…” (Preface to the 1872 German edition of the Communist Manifesto.)

These are elementary propositions for any Marxist. But Marxism is not merely the repetition of basic ideas, no matter how correct. If this were the case, every petty sectarian would be as great a Marxist as Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky put together. It is necessary to deepen and extend theory in the light of experience. This method can be seen in the writings of Marx and Engels, whose views on the state evolved over a period of decades.

From the very outset, the founders of scientific socialism were very careful in how they approached the question of violence, realising not only the danger of the proletariat being drawn into premature uprisings and adventures, but that a clumsy presentation of this question would be a propaganda gift to the enemies of Communism. Thus, in the first programmatic statement of Marxism, The Principles of Communism, Engels expresses himself very cautiously:

Question 16: Will it be possible to bring about the abolition of private property by peaceful means?

Answer: It is to be desired that this could happen, and the Communists certainly would be the last to resist it. The Communists know only too well that conspiracies are not only futile but even harmful. They know only too well that revolutions are not made deliberately and arbitrarily, but are everywhere and at all times the essential outcome of circumstances quite independent of the will and the leadership of particular parties and entire classes. But they likewise perceive that the development of the proletariat is in nearly every civilised country forcibly suppressed, and that thereby the opponents of the Communists are tending in every way to promote revolution. Should the oppressed proletariat in the end be goaded into a revolution, we Communists will then defend the cause of the proletarians by deed as well as we do now by word.” (Engels, Principles of Communism, Marx and Engels Selected Works, Vol. I, p. 89.)

At the end of his life, Engels reconsidered the question of revolutionary tactics in a famous preface to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France. Engel’s words were later used by the leaders of the German Social Democracy in an attempt to justify their reformist policies. However, even the most superficial reading of these lines shows that Engels did not reject the notion of insurrection, but was only warning against adventurism, ill-timed uprisings and conspiracies by minorities (“Blanquism”):

“The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of masses lacking consciousness is past. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must also be in on it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are fighting for, body and soul. The history of the last fifty years has taught us that. But in order that the masses may understand what is to be done, long, persistent work is required, and it is just this work that we are now pursuing, and with a success which drives the enemy to despair.” (F. Engels, Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Class Struggles in France 1848 to 1850, in K. Marx and F. Engels’ Collected Works, Vol. 27, p. 520.)

What is important to grasp here is Engels’ insistence on the need for the revolutionary party to win the masses, as the prior condition to carrying out the revolutionary transformation of society. This requires a more or less lengthy preparatory period of patient propaganda, agitation and organisation, utilising all kinds of work, including trade union and parliamentary work, in order to win over the widest layers of the working class. This is a subject we shall return to.

Under certain conditions, Marx and Engels did not rule out the possibility of a peaceful transfer of power to the proletariat, although, at the time, they believed that the only country where conditions existed for this perspective was Britain.

In the Preface to the 1886 English edition of Capital, Engels writes:

“Surely, at such a moment, the voice ought to be heard of a man whose whole theory is the result of a life-long study of the economic history and condition of England, and whom that study led to the conclusion that, at least in Europe, England is the only country where the inevitable social revolution might be effected entirely by peaceful and legal means,” although he added that Marx “hardly expected the English ruling classes to submit, without a ‘pro-slavery rebellion’ to this peaceful and legal revolution.” (Capital, Vol. I, p. 17.)

In 1918, Lenin wrote an interesting article entitled Left Wing Childishness and the Petit-Bourgeois Mentality, which contains a most profound appraisal of the position of Marx and Engels in relation to the tactics of the proletariat in the socialist revolution. Let us bear in mind that this is the same Lenin who one year earlier wrote State and Revolution. Lenin drew attention to the fact that Marx and Engels, at a certain moment, considered that in Britain the opportunity existed of winning socialism peacefully, and even of the workers “buying out” the bourgeois. While pointing out that the circumstances in Britain had changed (as we will explain in a moment), Lenin here makes a more general point, specifically answering Bukharin and the “Left Communists” who argued that it was impermissible in principle to suggest that it was possible for a workers’ state to “buy out” the bourgeois:

“Marx said: under certain circumstances the workers will not at all refuse to buy out the bourgeois. Marx did not tie his hands—or those of the future leaders of the socialist revolution—as to the forms, ways and means of bringing about the revolution, since he understood perfectly well that a host of new problems would then arise, that the whole situation would change in the course of the revolution, that it would change frequently and considerably in the course of revolution.” (Lenin, On Britain, pp. 355-6.)

Marx on Britain


The military caste in the epoch of imperialism is much stronger than it was in the early stages of the development of Capitalism in Britain. Photo by Tiffini M. Jones


Why did Marx single out Britain as the one country where a peaceful revolution was possible? The reason given by Lenin which is most frequently cited is the fact that, at that stage, Britain was “still the model of a purely capitalist country, but without a military clique and, to a considerable degree, without a bureaucracy. Hence, Marx excluded Britain, where a revolution, even a people’s revolution, then seemed possible, and indeed was possible without the preliminary condition of destroying the ‘ready-made’ state machinery.” (Ibid., p. 352.)

As a result of certain historical peculiarities (an island power which did not require a big standing army but maintained its domination of Europe by a combination of naval power and the policy of “divide and rule”) the state in Britain was weaker than in other European countries, where the absence of such natural defences created the necessity for large standing armies, with all the attendant evils of bureaucracy and militarism. Marx was writing at a time when British capitalism was still in its progressive phase of development, before the rise of imperialism and monopoly capitalism. Lenin explains that, by 1917, Marx’s distinction was no longer valid, since, in the epoch of imperialist decay, the state in both Britain and the USA was basically the same as in the other developed capitalist countries.

Nevertheless, the underdeveloped character of the state, and the relative weakness of the military-bureaucratic caste was only one element in Marx’s opinion that a peaceful transformation might have been possible in 19th century Britain. But it was by no means the only reason. The strength of the British working class and its organisations was one of the main reasons which made Marx think that the workers might take power peacefully, although he was careful to add that the ruling class could organise a “slave holders’ rebellion” to try to overthrow the workers’ government.

In the above-mentioned article, Lenin goes on to specify what were concrete reasons which made Marx and Engels consider the idea of a peaceful revolution to be possible in Britain:

“The submission of the capitalists to the workers in Britain could then have been secured by the following circumstances: 1) the complete predominance of the workers, the proletarians, among the population owing to the absence of a peasantry (in Britain in the seventies there were signs fostering the hope that socialism would make exceedingly rapid progress among the rural workers); 2) the excellent state of trade union organisation of the proletariat (at that time Britain was the leading country in this respect); 3) the relatively high cultural level of the proletariat trained by the century-old development of political liberty; 4) the long habit of Britain’s excellently organised capitalists—at that time they were the best organised capitalists in the world (now they have lost that primacy to the Germans)—of settling political and economic problems by compromise. It was these conditions that enabled the idea to arise then that the peaceful submission of Britain’s capitalists to its workers was possible.” (Lenin, “Left” Childishness and the petty-bourgeois mentality, ibid., pp.356-7.)

These lines show very clearly that, in Lenin’s view, the question under discussion is not at all limited to the historical peculiarities of the state in 19th century Britain. He explains that the basic conditions that gave rise to the possibility of a peaceful transformation of society flowed from the exceptionally favourable class balance of forces, which in turn was a result of the fact that Britain at that time was the only country in the world where capitalist industry had developed to the full extent.

If it is true that the British state is now more similar to the state in other capitalist countries, it is no less true that the development of the productive forces over the last 100 years, and especially since 1945, has meant an enormous strengthening of the working class everywhere. This means that the class balance of forces has been transformed, greatly to the advantage of the proletariat. In Marx’s day, the working class was a majority of society only in Britain. At the present time, the proletariat is the decisive majority of society in every advanced capitalist country, whereas the mass social reserves of reaction, especially the peasantry have been largely whittled away. This has very great consequences for the future prospects of the socialist revolution, above all in the advanced countries of capitalism.

The Class Balance of Forces

The disappearance of the peasantry in France and other countries is a fact of the first order of importance in weakening the mass social reserves of reaction. Let us recall that the peasantry formed the backbone of Bonapartist and, to some extent, fascist reaction in the past. Does this fact, in and of itself, guarantee that reaction is off the agenda? Not at all.

As a matter of fact, even in Britain, where the working class has constituted the overwhelming majority of the population for more than a hundred years, and where the peasantry does not exist, there would be the possibility of Bonapartist reaction, probably under the guise of some kind of royalist-Bonapartist coup (although the Monarchy nowadays is not the force it once was, nevertheless it still has considerable reserves of support among backward layers of the population) if the working class fails to transform society. And this is even more true of countries like Italy, Spain and Greece, where the extreme weakness of capitalism is expressed in a deepening political crisis and continual instability.

Class Programme

How do we expose the danger of reaction to the advanced workers and youth? It is necessary to warn the workers and youth of the threat of reaction. Above all, it is necessary to arm the cadres with a clear understanding of fascism and Bonapartism. A Bonapartist regime would be unstable, and probably would not last more than a few years. Nevertheless, the experience of Chile, Greece, and Argentina shows that such a regime would represent a nightmare for the working class. The ‘democratic’ bourgeois would not hesitate to unleash the fascist gangs against the workers’ organisations, or to use murder, torture and all kinds of intimidation in order to defend their class rule.

However, it is necessary to maintain a sense of proportion. The shrill hysteria of the sects, for whom fascism is always ‘just round the corner’ merely miseducates the minority of workers and youth who are unfortunate enough to fall under their influence. They have no understanding of fascism—or anything else. They do not take into account the nature of the present period, the real class balance of forces, or the interests of the bourgeois.

The blind alley of capitalism tends to drive sections of the petit bourgeois and lumpen proletariat insane. Under certain conditions, they can support the working class, when the latter shows in action that it is prepared to put itself forward as the real Master of society. But if the working class is paralysed by its leaders, these layers can swing towards reaction.

The steady increase in racist attacks in all countries is a reflection of the impasse of capitalism, and the frenzied reaction of layers of demoralised lumpens. During the period of economic upswing, capitalism needed large numbers of immigrants as cheap labour. Now they act as scapegoats for the crisis of capitalism.

It goes without saying that Marxists must be at the forefront of the struggle against racism. But the fight against racism is a CLASS STRUGGLE, not a racial struggle. The interests of the black, Asian, Turkish and Arab workers are the same as their white brothers and sisters. This must be hammered home at all times. Nothing is more injurious to the cause of the struggle against racism than attempts to split workers along racial lines.

At the same time, we must explain, as Trotsky explained, that the fight against fascism is a physical fight. There is no question of passively accepting fascist assaults on immigrants. Defence forces must be organised. But on a CLASS basis. Attempts to set up defence groups based on immigrants or racial minorities in isolation from the rest of the working class merely play into the hands of the racists, as does the idea that only immigrants must lead the movement against racism. We must fight for the setting up of joint defence committees of black and white workers, through the shop stewards committees, trades councils, trade unions, etc.

It is necessary to link the struggle against racism and fascism with the perspective of the socialist transformation of society. Without this, even the election of a socialist government will not solve the problem. On the contrary, the policies of the labour leaders, aimed at conciliating the bourgeois, will only serve to aggravate the crisis and prepare the way for reaction. A policy of counter-reforms will further alienate the petit bourgeois, and even drive sections of them into the arms of the fascists.

When the ruling class can no longer hold the working class in check by ‘normal’ means, they will not hesitate to call in the military. More correctly, they will TRY to move in the direction of a military dictatorship. The way to this would be prepared by a move towards parliamentary Bonapartism, like the regimes of Von Papen and Schleicher in Germany before Hitler.

If the Marxist tendency were strong enough, it would be necessary to wage an energetic campaign for a united front of workers’ parties and organisations to prevent this from happening.

The entire situation is different to the period between the two world wars. Then, the fascists had massive social reserves in the peasantry and the petit-bourgeoisie, including the students. Now all that has changed. The working class is a thousand times stronger, the peasantry has all but disappeared, and large sections of the white-collar workers—teachers, civil servants, bank workers, etc.—have drawn much closer to the proletariat.

Under these circumstances, the bourgeoisie will have to think twice before moving towards an open dictatorship. If the labour movement were armed with genuine socialist policies, such a move could end in the total overthrow of bourgeois rule.

Lenin explained that one of the features of a pre-revolutionary situation is a ferment in the middle layers of society. Driven to despair by the crisis of capitalism the petit bourgeoisie thrashes about in all directions, looking for a way out.

If the working class and its organisations gave a bold lead, the petit bourgeois masses would swing behind it. But in the absence of such a lead, the middle layers can swing in all kinds of directions. At the present time, the ferment in the petit bourgeoisie in Europe reflects itself in all kinds of reactionary phenomena—the Northern League, Berlusconi, the MSI, Le Pen, the German Republicans, the Austrian Freedom Party, and so on.

However, once the working class begins to move, all that can change very quickly. Especially if the right comes to power, and their programme is put to the test, their base in the petit bourgeoisie will evaporate very quickly.

The existence of these reactionary movements is the price we have to pay for the failure of the Socialist and ‘Communist’ leaders to take power in the past. The only way to ensure that the road to reaction is blocked in the future is by waging a relentless struggle to win over the advanced workers and youth to a genuine socialist programme, and through them, the masses.

Lenin and “defencism”

The difference between abstract politics and the dialectical method is shown by the evolution of Lenin’s position on revolutionary tactics in the period 1914 to 1917. In August 1914, the split in the 2nd International created an entirely new situation. In the light of the unprecedented betrayal of the Social Democracy, it was necessary to regroup and re-educate the small and isolated forces of Marxism internationally. Lenin in this period laid heavy emphasis on the basic principles of revolutionary internationalism, above all the impossibility of returning to the old International, and implacable opposition to all forms of patriotism (revolutionary defeatism). In order to combat the doubts and vacillations of the Bolshevik leaders, Lenin gave the sharpest possible expression to these ideas, such as “turn the imperialist war into civil war,” and “the defeat of one’s own bourgeoisie is the lesser evil.” It is arguable that, on occasion, he exaggerated. It would not be the first time that, in order to “straighten the stick,” Lenin bent it too far in the other direction. On the fundamental issues, there is no doubt whatever that Lenin was right. But unless we understand his method, not just what he wrote but why he wrote it, we can end in a complete mess.


There is no doubt whatever that Lenin was right in the position he took during the war but it is necessary to understand his method – not just what he wrote but why he wrote it.


Ultra-left and sectarian groups always repeat Lenin’s words without understanding a single line. They take his writings on war as something absolute, outside of time and space. They do not understand that, at this time, Lenin was not writing for the masses, but for a tiny handful of cadres in a given historical context. Unless we understand this, we can make a fundamental mistake. In order to combat chauvinism, and stress the impossibility of any reconciliation with the Social Democracy, and particularly its left wing (Kautsky and the “centre”), Lenin used some formulations which were undoubtedly exaggerated. Such exaggerations, for example, led him to characterise Trotsky’s position as “centrism” which was entirely incorrect. Endless confusions have arisen from the one sided interpretation of Lenin’s position of this period.

When Lenin returned to Russia after March 1917, he fundamentally modified his position. Not that his opposition to the imperialist war was any less, or his opposition to social chauvinism any less implacable. He continued to be vigilant with regard to any backsliding on the part of the Bolshevik leaders on the question of the war. But here it was no longer a question of theory, but of the living movement of the masses. Lenin’s position after March 1917 bore little resemblance to the slogans he had advanced earlier. He saw that, in the concrete circumstances, the mass of the workers and peasants had illusions in “the defence of the Revolution,” as they understood it. It was absolutely necessary to take this into account, if the Bolsheviks were to connect to the real mood of the masses. If Lenin had maintained the old position, it would have been merely doctrinaire. It would have entirely cut the Bolsheviks off from the real movement of the workers and peasants. Only hopeless sectarians and doctrinaires could fail to see the difference.

In a speech to the delegates of the Bolshevik faction of the Soviets, Lenin explained:

“The masses approach this question not from the theoretical but from a practical point of viewpoint. Our mistake lies in our theoretical approach. The class conscious proletariat may consent to a revolutionary war that actually overthrows revolutionary defencism. Before the representatives of the soldiers the matter must be put in a practical way, otherwise nothing will come of it. We are not at all pacifists. The fundamental question is: Which class is waging the war? The capitalist class, tied to the banks cannot wage any but an imperialist war. The working class can. (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 20, p. 96.)

As a matter of fact, the slogans of “revolutionary defeatism” played no role in preparing the masses for the October revolution. Not “the defeat of Russia is the lesser evil” but “Peace, Bread and Land” and “All power to the Soviets” were the rallying cry of the Bolsheviks which led to the victory of the October insurrection. We will examine the concrete content of these slogans later.

The point is that without flexible tactics which take into account the real level of consciousness of the workers’ movement, it is impossible to win over the masses. But before it is possible to speak of the conquest of power, it is first necessary to conquer the masses. Without this, all talk of the insurrection, overthrowing the state, inevitable civil war, revolutionary violence, military preparations and all the rest becomes mere chattering.

“Every vegetable has its season.” There is a time and place for every slogan. It is characteristic of the sectarian psychology to imagine that slogans stand outside time and place. Since, for them, politics is a matter of small circles with no contact with the real world, the outlook of the masses is a matter of indifference. The situation is radically different with a genuine Marxist tendency which strives to win over the masses, beginning with the advanced layers.

When Lenin returned to Russia, a section of the Bolshevik Party, under the influence of impatience, wanted to move too far ahead of the class. Echoing the ultra-lefts and anarchists, they raised the revolutionary slogan “Down with the Provisional government.” This was the slogan of insurrection. What attitude did Lenin take? He completely opposed it. Why? Because such a slogan did not at all correspond to the real stage the movement was at. Lenin, who was a revolutionary to the fingertips, nevertheless implacably opposed this slogan, and instead oriented the Party towards the conquest of the masses with the slogan “patiently explain.”

Is this not another example of the abandonment of the revolutionary position of the violent seizure of power? Was it not Lenin’s duty to advocate civil war? As a matter of fact, so far from advocating it, at a certain point Lenin even denounced those who claimed that he stood for civil war. He quite correctly denied that the Bolsheviks stood for violence, and placed full responsibility for violence on the shoulders of the ruling class. This did not at all suit the ultra-lefts who failed to understand that nine tenths of the task of the socialist revolution is the work of winning over the masses by propaganda, agitation, explanation and organisation. Without this, all talk of civil war and insurrection boils down to one of two things—either the kind of empty chattering characteristic of bar room socialists, or else irresponsible adventurism, or, in the scientific terminology of Marxism, Blanquism.

Here is what Lenin has to say on the subject:

To speak of civil war before people have come to realise the need for it is undoubtedly to fall into Blanquism.” (CW, Vol. 21, p. 43, International Publishers, New York, 1929, our emphasis.)

Not the Bolsheviks, but the bourgeoisie and their reformist allies constantly raised the spectre of violence and civil war. How did Lenin react? Did he give “fearless” revolutionary speeches, taking up the gauntlet and throwing it back into the enemy’s face? Did he openly talk about the inevitability of civil war? On the contrary, he repeatedly denied any suggestion that the Bolsheviks advocated violence. On April 25 he protested in Pravda against “dark insinuations” of “Minister Nekrasov” about “the preaching of violence” by the Bolsheviks:

“Mr. minister, worthy member of the ‘People’s Freedom Party,’ you are lying. It is Mr. Guchov who preaches violence when he threatens to punish the soldiers for removing the authorities. It is the Russkaia Volia, the progrom newspaper of the progrom ‘republicans’ and friendly to you that preaches violence.

“The Pravda and its followers do not preach violence. On the contrary, they declare most clearly, precisely, and definitely, that our main work should at present be concentrated on explaining to the proletarian masses their proletarian problems, as distinguished from the problems of the petty bourgeoisie which has succumbed to chauvinist poison.” (Lenin: Collected Works, vol. XX, Book 1, p. 171.)

On May 4 the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks passed a resolution written by Lenin. The aim of the resolution was to restrain the Petrograd local leadership which was running ahead of events. It aimed to put the responsibility for any violence on the Provisional Government and its supporters, and to accuse the “capitalist minority of reluctance to submit to the will of the majority.” Here are the two paragraphs from the resolution:

“1. Party agitators and speakers must refute the despicable lies of the capitalist papers and of the papers supporting the capitalists to the effect that we threaten with civil war. This is a despicable lie, for at the present moment, when the capitalists and their government cannot and dare not use violence against the masses, when the mass of soldiers and workers freely expresses its will, freely elects and replaces all public officers, — at such a moment any thought of civil war is naive, senseless, monstrous; at such a moment there must be full compliance with the will of the majority of the population and free criticism of this will by the dissatisfied minority; should violence be resorted to, the responsibility will fall on the Provisional Government and its supporters.

“2. The government of the capitalists and its newspapers, by their noisy denunciation of the alleged civil war, are only trying to conceal the reluctance of the capitalists, who admittedly constitute an insignificant minority of the people, to submit to the will of the majority.” (Collected Works, vol. XX, Book 1, p. 245.)

Lenin understood that the working class learns from experience, especially the experience of great events. The only way in which a small revolutionary tendency can gain the ear of the masses is by following the course of events shoulder to shoulder with the masses, participating in the day to day struggle as it unfolds, advancing slogans which correspond to the real stage of the movement, and patiently explaining the need for a complete transformation of society as the only way out.

Shrill calls to insurrection and civil war will not win over the masses, or even the advanced layer, but only repel them. As we see from the above, this is true even in the middle of a Revolution. It is a hundred times more true at the present time, when the question of the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism is far from being uppermost in the minds of even the most advanced workers. On the contrary, it is necessary to put the onus for violence and civil war on the shoulders of the reformist leaders who have it in their hands to take power peacefully and, by their refusal to do so, make bloodshed inevitable.

“All Power to the Soviets”

Everyone knows that this was the central slogan of Lenin and Trotsky in 1917. But very few people have understood the real content of this slogan. What, concretely, was the meaning of the slogan “All power to the soviets?” Civil war? Insurrection? The seizure of power by the Bolsheviks? Far from it. The Bolsheviks were in a minority in the soviets, which were dominated by the reformist parties, the SRs and Mensheviks. The central task was not the seizure of power, but winning over the majority who had illusions in the reformists.

The Bolsheviks based their “patient explanation” on the idea, constantly reiterated in the writings and speeches of Lenin from March right up to the eve of the October insurrection that the reformist leaders should take power into their own hands, that this would guarantee a peaceful transformation of society, that the Bolsheviks were wholeheartedly in favour of this, and that, if the reformist leaders were to take power, the Bolsheviks would limit themselves to the peaceful struggle for a majority inside the soviets.

Here are a couple of examples of how Lenin put the question (there are many more):

Apparently, not all the supporters of the slogan ‘All Power Must Be Transferred to the Soviets’ have given adequate though to the fact that it was a slogan for peaceful progress of the revolution—peaceful not only in the sense that nobody, no class, no force of any importance, would then (between February 27 and July 4) have been able to resist and prevent the transfer of power to the Soviets. That is not all. Peaceful development would then have been possible, even in the sense that the struggle of classes and parties within the Soviets could have assumed a most peaceful and painless form, provided full state power had passed to the Soviets in good time.” (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 25, p. 184, our emphasis)

“No other condition would, I think, be advanced by the Bolsheviks, who would be confident that really full freedom of propaganda and the immediate realisation of a new democracy in the composition of the Soviets (new elections to them) and in their functioning would in themselves secure a peaceful forward movement of the revolution, a peaceful outcome of the party strife within the Soviets.

“Perhaps this is already impossible? Perhaps. But if there is even one chance in a hundred, the attempt at realising such a possibility would still be worthwhile.” (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. XXI, book I, pp. 153-4.)

“Our business is to help do everything possible to secure the ‘last’ chance for a peaceful development of the revolution, to help this by presenting our programme, by making clear its general, national character, its absolute harmony with the interests and demands of an enormous majority of the population.” (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. XXI, book I, p. 257.)

“Having seized power, the Soviet could still at present—and that is probably their last chance—secure a peaceful development of the revolution, peaceful elections of the deputies by the people, a peaceful struggle of the parties inside the Soviets, a testing of the programmes of various parties in practice, a peaceful passing of power from one party to another.” (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. XXI, book I, pp. 263-64.)

And here is how Trotsky sums up the position in The History of the Russian Revolution:

“The transfer of power to the Soviets meant, in its immediate sense, a transfer of power to the Compromisers. That might have been accomplished peacefully, by way of a simple dismissal of the bourgeois government, which had survived only on the good will of the Compromisers and the relics of the confidence in them of the masses. The dictatorship of the workers and soldiers had been a fact since the 27th of February. But the workers and soldiers were not to the point necessary aware of that fact. They had confided the power to the Compromisers, who in their turn had passed it over to the bourgeois. The calculations of the Bolsheviks on a peaceful development of the revolution rested, not on the hope that the bourgeois would voluntarily turn over the power to the workers and soldiers, but that the workers and soldiers would in good season prevent the Compromisers from surrendering the power to the bourgeois.

“The concentration of the power in the soviets under a regime of soviet democracy, would have opened before the Bolsheviks a complete opportunity to become a majority in the soviet, and consequently to create a government on the basis of their program. For this end an armed insurrection would have been unnecessary. The interchange of power between the parties could have been accomplished peacefully. All the efforts of the party from April to July had been directed towards making possible a peaceful development of the revolution through the soviet. ‘Patiently explain’—that had been the key to the Bolshevik policy.” (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Vol. II, pp. 312-3, our emphasis.)

But maybe Lenin and Trotsky were only bluffing? Maybe they only put forward the idea of a peaceful transition in order to gain popularity with the workers, making allowance for their reformist pacifist illusions? To imagine such a thing would be not to understand anything of the method of Lenin and Trotsky, based on fearless revolutionary honesty. In his testimony before the Dewey Commission, Trotsky puts this very clearly: “I believe that the Marxist, the revolutionary, policy in general is a very simple policy: ‘Speak out what is! Don’t lie! Tell the truth!’ It is a very simple policy.” (The Case of Leon Trotsky, p. 384.)

The Bolshevik Party did not have two different programmes, one for the educated few and one for the “ignorant” workers. Lenin and Trotsky always told the truth to the working class, even when this was bitter and unpalatable. If in 1917, that is in the midst of a revolution, when the question of power was poised point blank, they insisted in the idea that a peaceful transformation was possible (not “theoretically” but actually possible), on condition only that the reformist leaders took decisive action, it could only be because this was actually the case. And so it was. Had the soviet leadership acted decisively, the revolution would have taken place peacefully, without civil war, because they had the support of the overwhelming majority of society. In pointing this simple fact out to the workers and peasants, Lenin and Trotsky were not telling lies, or abandoning the Marxist theory of the state, but merely saying what was obviously true to the mass of workers and peasants.

Lenin maintained this position up until July, when he changed it. Why? Because of the cowardice of the Mensheviks and SRs who refused to take power, the initiative inevitably passed to the reaction. Behind the shirt-tails of the Russian popular front (the Provisional Government) the ruling class was regrouping and preparing its revenge. The result was the reaction of the “July Days.”

On the basis of the July raids, Lenin drew the conclusion that a peaceful outcome was now impossible, that civil war was inevitable, and that it was necessary for the party to place insurrection on the order of the day immediately. As a matter of fact, Lenin was mistaken, as Trotsky points out in The History of the Russian Revolution. Lenin, who was in hiding in Finland, later admitted that he was out of touch. The real reason for his stand was his fear that Kamenev, Zinoviev and Stalin would vacillate and not proceed to prepare to take power. In this he was not mistaken. It is a law that, as the date of the insurrection approaches, the leadership of the revolutionary party comes under extreme pressure from alien classes, and a section begins to vacillate.

“Patiently explain”

However, Trotsky’s position was undoubtedly correct. He understood the need to continue the work of winning over the soviets right up to the moment of the insurrection, and even proposed (against Lenin’s opposition) that the date of the insurrection should be postponed to coincide with the congress of soviets where the Bolsheviks would win the majority. Thus, even in the course of an insurrection itself, the question of legality, far from being relegated to an unimportant position, assumes a crucial role in winning over the more inert layers of the masses.

By bringing out the contradiction between the words and deeds of the reformist leaders, the Bolsheviks prepared the way to winning over the decisive majority in the soviets, and also in the army (which was also represented in the soviets). This was the real way in which the Bolshevik Party prepared for insurrection in 1917, not by talking about it, but by actually penetrating the masses and their organisations with flexible tactics and slogans which really corresponded to the demands of the situation, and connected with the consciousness of the masses, not lifeless abstractions learned by rote from a revolutionary cookbook.

The only reason why a peaceful revolution was not immediately achieved in Russia was because of the cowardice and treachery of the reformist leaders in the soviets, as Lenin and Trotsky explained a hundred times.

Unless and until the revolutionary party wins the masses, it is pointless and counterproductive to place the emphasis on the alleged inevitability of violence and civil war. This was never the method of the great Marxist thinkers in the past, but was always a characteristic of the ultra left sects on the fringes of the labour movement, who live in a “revolutionary” dream world all of their own, which bears no relation to the real world. In this hothouse, shut away from reality, small groups can while away the time endlessly debating the “insurrection” and mentally “preparing” themselves for the “inevitability of civil war” while the real task of building the revolutionary organisation entirely escapes them.

In what way does a Marxist tendency concretely prepare for power? By winning over the masses. In what way can this task be achieved? By working out a programme of transitional demands which, setting out from the real situation of society and the objective needs of the working class and the youth, links the immediate demands to the central idea of expropriating the capitalists and transforming society. As Lenin and Trotsky explained many times nine-tenths of the task of revolution consists precisely in this. Unless this fact is grasped, all talk about armed struggle, “military preparations” and civil war is reduced to irresponsible demagogy.

As we have pointed out, when the Bolsheviks were a small minority in the soviets, which were entirely dominated by the reformist parties, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries who were striving for an alliance with the bourgeoisie, they did not play with insurrection, but stressed the need to win a majority in the soviets (“patiently explain”). The workers and peasants trusted the reformist leaders then as now. The Bolsheviks had to take this fact as their starting point. And so do we.

So long as they were in a minority, Lenin and Trotsky did their utmost to restrain the workers and soldiers, to avoid a premature confrontation with the state. All their emphasis was on peaceful agitation and propaganda. For example, Lenin opposed an armed demonstration in June. For their pains, Lenin and Trotsky incurred the anger of sections of the workers who had moved a bit too far ahead of the class. They were accused of opportunism for not pushing the question of armed insurrection into the foreground.

To such criticism, they merely shrugged their shoulders. They understood that the most pressing task was to win over the majority of the workers and soldiers who remained under the influence of the Mensheviks and SRs. By skilful and flexible tactics, the Bolsheviks succeeded in gaining the majority in the soviets in the months before October. That, and that alone, explains the relatively peaceful character of the October insurrection. The reason was not primarily military, but the fact that nine-tenths of the work had already been accomplished beforehand.

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