Topic: Marx and the Question of the State

Max Hempel (1927) or: Marx and Engels versus Lenin’s ‘State and Revolution’

Jan Appel’s critique from 1927 of the ‘Bolshevik’ regime in Russia and Lenin’s ‘State and Revolution’ has been republished in an annotated edition in German on the web site “Left Wing” Communism – an infantile Disorder? Likewise a re-edition of its adoption by the G.I.C. from 1932 has seen the light of day in Dutch. These documents refute the myth that the historical German-Dutch communist left was virtually bereft of a realist appreciation of the question of the state, as propelled by quite some partisans of ‘the party’ and others in the internationalist milieu. In the following we present a broad outline of this important contribution by the council communist current to solve the ‘Russian enigma’, which can be conceived of as a preliminary work to the G.I.C.’s Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution’ (1930 – 1935).

“As soon as the rule of the working class has become a fact in an industrialized country, the proletariat is confronted with the task of carrying through the conversion of the economy according to new, common (communist) principles. The abolition of private property is easily pronounced, it will be the first measure of the political rule by the working class. But that is only a juridical act which aims at providing the legal foundation for the real economic proceedings. The real transformation and the actual revolutionary work then only begins.

To the extent that this problem is dealt with by the officious Marxists, it is considered a foregone conclusion that the state has to accomplish this task. Since the 1917 revolution the Russian Bolshevik Party has consistently implemented the idea of putting the means of production in the hands of the State. In this the bourgeoisified social-democracy goes so far as to wanting to already envisage the transformation of the capitalist economy into socialism by the bourgeois state (which the workers should conquer for themselves by means of universal suffrage). It should be noted: this is said in theory, the practice is a different one.

But as [the same] social-democracy in 1918 – 1919 found itself at the helm of the state in Germany (not by universal suffrage), it could not decide whether [the industry] and which industries would be “mature” for statification. In the end it chose private capitalism as the best economic form. Thereby social-democratic “Marxism” has practically dropped the problem of the construction of socialism. It can therefore no longer be taken seriously. Things are different with the Muscovite social-democrats, the Bolshevik Party of Russia. The latter has realized the idea of the statification of the means of production in a consistent way in the course of the Russian revolution since 1917. That this has only succeeded to a limited extent is due to the backward state of social production in Russia; in a sense this is a natural barrier imposed upon the statification of the means of production. Therefore, the question is not whether and to what extent statification of the means of production by the victorious working class is feasible, but rather whether the latter, in the way it manifests itself in Bolshevik theory and practice, is the way leading to communism.”

The aforementioned quotation constitutes the opening section of the article ‘Marx-Engels and Lenin – The Role of the State in the proletarian Revolution’, which appeared in 1927 in the German revue ‘Proletarier’, a monthly publication of the K.A.P.D.’s Berlin Tendency. (1) It deals with the experience of the working class after the seizure of power by the Soviets in October 1917 in Russia, and with the conception elaborated by Lenin in ‘State and Revolution’ (1917) in comparison with the lessons drawn by Marx and Engels from the 1871 Paris Commune regarding the character and role of the state in the period of transition towards communism. A short biographical note on its author (Jan Appel, 1890–1985) has been included after this piece.(2)

The article formulates key question from the outset: whether the statification of the means of production by the victorious working class, in the way it manifests itself in Bolshevik theory and practice, is the way leading to communism.” It replies to this in the negative by qualifying society in ‘Bolshevik’ Russia as “state communist”, as a society in which the fundamental relation of production of capitalism: wage labor, persists, whereas private ownership of the means of production is tendentially transferred into state ownership through ‘nationalizations’. Instead of setting out for the dismantling of the state in view of the dissolution of social classes, ultimately rendering its existence obsolete, these ‘nationalizations’ have only solidified and strengthened the state and perpetuated the existence of these classes.

The article decidedly rejects the view that soviet ‘democracy’ could constitute a means for the working class to steer towards the ‘withering away of the state’ by engaging in party and syndicalist activity. It demonstrates that for the proletariat this has resulted in something quite the opposite in Russia: as their participation in ‘soviet democracy’ resulted in the workers obtaining a “right to co-management” (as demanded by social-democracy in a capitalist order as well), it became the “fig leaf” (similar to bourgeois society) meant to hide “the renewed domination over the workers” by “a ruling bureaucracy” that was using a new, self solidifying state”, through its “central organizational leadership and management (…) of the means of production” this state was taking possession of, as “an instrument of oppression” … against the same class in the name of which it pretended to exercise a transitory dictatorship.

Faced with the ghastly rift between the pretense of having engaged upon a ‘transition towards socialism’ and the practice of a “management apparatus in the hands of a small party that also disposes of the political power”, which soon revealed itself in ‘soviet’ Russia, Appel’s criticism  proceeds by looking for contradictions in the conception of the state and its role that has been elaborated by Lenin, as one of the most outspoken practical and theoretical protagonists of ‘state communism’.

Confronting the latter’s ‘State and Revolution’ with the conception of Marx and Engels in ‘Anti-Dühring’ (1878; 1894), and in particular with that of Marx in ‘The Civil war in France’ (1871; 1891), he demonstrates that Lenin’s writing advocates both the statist, reformist conception of a mechanism of public management according to the type of a state capitalist monopoly” (3) and the anti-statist conception defended by Marx and Engels of “an association of free and equal producers”, (4) and that Lenin does not resolve the problem how a solidifying of the state that emerges from a successful proletarian seizure of political power can ever result in its “withering away” or “falling asleep”, to use an expression of Engels.

More specifically the article demonstrates from what point in its development Lenin’s conception of the character and role of the state “deviates questionably” from that of Marx and Engels with regards to the self-emancipation of the proletariat and their conception of a ‘half-state’ of the ‘commune type’ in the transitional period.

For Appel the task of the dictatorship of the proletariat – exercised by the workers’ councils – is to create the conditions for the transfer of state power to the elected communes, its goal is to be substituted itself by the “voluntary centralism” of the latter. He concludes by emphasizing that the reformist conception of a statified “mechanism of public management”, on the one hand, and that of Marx and Engels of the “association of the free and equal producers”, on the other, constitute two distinct systems, expressing among themselves a contradiction that cannot be imagined more glaring”whereas Lenin and the whole of “the workers’ organizations that [were] part of the 3rd International” have always maintained that both conceptions can be unified.


1 The quotations in this piece have been translated from a photocopy of the 1927 article in German. Insertions in square brackets are from the editor.

2 For a somewhat more expanded description of Appel’s political stances and trajectory see (in German):

3 For Lenin, the centralized management of the postal services, led by the imperial German state, respectively that of a ‘trust’, served as a model for the ‘socialist enterprise’.

4 … this ‘association’ transforms the means of production into “social ownership”; it “snatch[es] the justified functions from a power that claimed to stand above society, and give[s] them back to the responsible servants of society” – i.e. the elected, and directly and immediately revocable, functionaries of the communes.

Biographical Note: Jan Appel (1890 – May 4, 1985)

Born somewhere in Mecklenburg in Germany in 1890, Jan Appel was drafted in the army from 1911 to 1913 and mobilized during the First World War; in 1917-1918 he was a revolutionary worker in Hamburg, participating in strikes to make an end to a war considered lost.

He participated in the foundation of the K.A.P.D. in April 1920. With Franz Jung he represented the K.A.P.D. in August 1920 on the Second Congress of the Comintern. In order to get to Russia, in 1920 they hijacked a boat. In June-July 1921 and he was also present on the Third Congress, with Herman Gorter, Karl Schröder, Otto Rühle and Fritz Rasch. Within the K.A.P.D. he confronted both the Hamburg “National Bolsheviks” (Wolfheim and Laufenberg) and Otto Rühle’s unionist anti-party-position. Jan Appel was arrested in 1923 and imprisoned until Christmas 1925.

In prison he studied Marx’ Capital. In April 1926 he got to the Netherlands with first notes and ideas for The Fundamental principles of Communist Production and Distribution, which was discussed within the Groups of Internationalist Communists – founded in 1928 by Piet Coerman, Henk Canne Meijer and Jan Appel – and after ample discussion and editing by Henk Canne Meijer and Herman de Beer it was published in 1930 in German and Dutch.

In 1933, when the German authorities got interested in him again in relation to the ‘Reichstagsbrand’, he was declared [an] ‘unwanted foreigner’ in the Netherlands and had to go into hiding in Amsterdam until 1948.

During the Second World War he joined the League of Communists Spartacus. Arrested by the Dutch police in 1948 after a [serious traffic accident] in Amsterdam, he was finally allowed to stay in the Netherlands on the condition that he would stay out of politics. He remained in contact however with many people, old and young, and was present at the founding Congress of the International Communist Current in Paris in [1976].

Source: Antonie Pannekoek Archives, Jan Appel (1890-1985) – Introduction (The collection includes more detailed biographical documents)


Marx-Engels und Lenin – Die Rolle des Staates in der proletarischen Revolution (‘Proletarier’, 1927)


German, Dutch


Re-editions of a 1927 article (June 2017)


Max Hempel (Jan Appel) / K.A.P.D. / G.I.C.

Web link:


A council communist critique of the Russian experience and Lenin’s ‘State and Revolution’.


Annotated re-editions, Pamphlets, 20 pp.(A4), pdf (free download).