State and Revolution by Vladimir Lenin
The first agit-train was named after Lenin. Part of a small fleet, it traveled throughout the incipient USSR during the Russian Civil War to win hearts and minds in a starkly populated countryside. While Bolshevism gained momentum in urban areas and the Red Army tallied the metropolitan districts under its control, party leaders sought new technologies to bring the peasantry to their cause. Their rural audience was largely illiterate and desperately remote, scattered as they were throughout a terrain that basically amounted to an entire continent. The Bolsheviks needed a platform to meet these conditions. In the space between factories and fields, the agit-train—decorated conspicuously, moving fast on account of external combustion and revolutionary zeal—came screaming into view.
The agit-train carried in its cargo a veritable cornucopia of propaganda. It was equipped with presses and projectors, lecture halls and libraries. Car exteriors were plastered in graphic murals, effectively functioning as migrating billboards advertising the heroism of the proletariat to anyone along the train’s path. The agit-train served a military function—to manage troops spread far and wide, Trotsky set up a mobile headquarters on one of them—and a political function as well. At every stop, officials on board the agit-train made contact with local authorities and took complaints from residents, effectively establishing Soviet power on the periphery when the future of the war was still in the balance. The train was always on the move. “Hurry up, comrades!” urged one poster announcing its arrival. “This train won’t be staying long.”
I didn’t really know how to spend time with State and Revolution until I learned about these trains. At first, I read in fits and, with each read, found myself entertaining weird regrets that had never occurred to me before. I wish I could read Russian, I would think to myself as I shut the cover on an ungainly sentence, chalking it up to translation. When did anyone ever teach me about the Paris Commune? Why wasn’t I paying attention? It wasn’t actually for a lack of context that I had trouble; the annotations in the Haymarket edition situated me well. Nor would I ascribe my halting first attempts to disinterest. It was fun enough to follow Lenin’s argument as he sliced and diced a half-century of Marxisms in order to extract a viable revolutionary politics for the moment he found himself in. Surely I was moving along, but something was keeping me from really getting going. I needed a metaphor.
Imagine this book like a train chug-chugging across the steppe. A relentless pulsing engine puts a great big mass in motion. A triumphant horn dopplers past. Lenin was in hiding while he was writing State and Revolution; coincidentally, he wrote the arguments collected here during a period of time when he was riding a lot of trains. Famously, the manuscript breaks off in the last chapter, when Lenin was interrupted by nothing other than the October Revolution. In a postscript, he muses, “It is more pleasant and useful to go through the experience of revolution than to write about it.”
If Lenin didn’t finish writing State and Revolution because he found something more “pleasant and useful” to do, certainly you can apply his same standards to decide whether to start reading it yourself. This book is pleasant like a boxcar cinema and as useful as a wandering headquarters. If the agit-train holds your curiosity like it does mine, you might find State and Revolution worthy of your time.–Louise McCune