1917 and the ‘Workers’ State’: Looking Back

A W Zurbrugg


Lenin’s State and Revolution was one of the most famous texts of the twentieth century. Written in 1917 before the October revolution and published shortly after, it looked forward to a new polity, one that should be fully democratic, with a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ creating ‘democracy for the people’. His discussion assumed that a Marxist party’s thinking should predominate. He did not consider differences between artisan Paris in 1871, and industrial St. Petersburg and Moscow in 1917; between the older (commune) and newer forms of mass participatory organisation. He did not consider the pressing issues of what role factory committees might play, how they might relate to unions, Soviets and other structures, and how these various organisations could work together.

Lenin often took his cue from the German model of social democracy before the war. Notably, in State and Revolution he still refers to the German post office – under socialist guidance – as a model, without noting the post office’s hierarchal status-proud culture, with officials recruited from the army; ex-soldiers inured to military discipline. It is telling that he refers to beamte (state officials delivering letters) proud of their status, rather than organised workers. Lenin called for the destruction of autocratic and parliamentary state forms. But he also admired orderly hierarchies. So State and Revolution contains diverse and somewhat contradictory elements.

The October revolution brought such diverse elements to the fore; moreover, as it developed the substance and weight of various elements – old and new – changed, and so too did the interrelation between them. These dynamics were both complex and somewhat unprecedented: there was no single road map for the transition towards socialism, rather several sketchy ‘maps’ with diverse and somewhat inconsistent signposts.

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