The basic theme of State and Revolution—the one that indelibly inscribes itself on the memory, and immediately comes to mind when one thinks of the work—is the theme of the revolution as a destructive and violent act. The revolution cannot be restricted to the seizure of power, it must also be the destruction of the old State. ‘The point is whether the old State machine shall remain, or be destroyed,’ says Lenin.footnote1 Sprengen, zerbrechen, destroy, smash: these words capture the tone of the text. Lenin’s polemic is not directed against those who do not wish for the seizure of power. The object of his attack is not reformism. On the contrary, it is directed against those who wish for the seizure of power but not for the destruction of the old State as well. The author he aims at is Kautsky. But not, let it be clear, the Kautsky who was to emerge after 1917 (in Terrorism and Communism, for example), but rather the Kautsky of the writings devoted to the struggle against opportunism: the Kautsky who wants revolution, and yet does not want the destruction of the old State machine.

At first impression the text seems an implacable but sectarian essay, primitive, steeped in ‘Asiatic fury’—a kind of hymn to ‘violence for violence’s sake’. What seems to emerge from it is a reduction of revolution to its most elementary and external features: the capture of the Winter Palace, the Ministry of the Interior in flames, the arrest and execution of the political personnel of the old government. It was precisely this interpretation that ensured the success of State and Revolution throughout the Stalin era, for more than a quarter of a century from 1928 to 1953, not only in Russia but in all the Communist Parties of the world. The revolution is violence. Kautsky is a social-democrat because he does not want violence. It is impossible to be a Communist if your aim is not the violent seizure of power. Until 1953, any militant in a Communist Party (the Italian Party included) who had dared to cast doubts on this necessity of violence would have found himself in the same position as anyone today who expresses doubts about the ‘peaceful, parliamentary road’.

I shall not be so stupid as to suggest that Lenin was against violence. He was in favour of a violent insurrection, just as in June 1917 he had supported the peaceful development of the revolution. He was for one or the other, according to the circumstances. But on one point his thought was immutable: in each and every case, the State machine must be destroyed.

The ways in which the revolution can be achieved are to some extent contingent: they depend on a constellation of events which it is useless to discuss beforehand. Nor does the amount of bloodshed in itself indicate the thoroughness of the revolutionary process. The essential point of the revolution, the destruction it cannot forgo (and of which violence is not in itself a sufficient guarantee) is rather the destruction of the bourgeois State as a power separate from and counterposed to the masses, and its replacement by a power of a new type. This is the essential point.

According to Lenin, the old State machine must be destroyed because the bourgeois State depends on the separation and alienation of power from the masses. In capitalist society, democracy is, at best, ‘always hemmed in by the narrow limits set by capitalist exploitation’. ‘The majority of the population is debarred from participation in public and political life.’ All the mechanisms of the bourgeois State are restrictions that ‘exclude and squeeze out the poor from politics, from active participation in democracy’.footnote2 A socialist revolution that maintained this type of State would keep alive the separation between the masses and power, their dependence and subordination.

If the socialization of the means of production means that, emancipating itself from the rule of capital, the society becomes its own master and brings the productive forces under its own conscious, planned control, the political form in which this economic emancipation can be achieved can only be one axed upon the initiative and self-government of the producers.

Here we have the really basic theme of State and Revolution. The destruction of the bourgeois state machine is not the Ministry of the Interior in flames, it is not the barricades. All this may take place, but it is not the essential point. What is essential to the revolution is the destruction of the diaphragm that separates the working classes from power, the emancipation and self-determination of the former, the transmission of power directly into the hands of the people. Marx said that the Commune had proved that ‘the working-class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes’. It cannot: for the aim of the socialist revolution is not ‘to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another’footnote3 but to transfer power directly into the hands of the people—and that is impossible if this machine is not first smashed.