“The Basic Question of every revolution is that of state power,” Lenin wrote in the midst of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Here was Lenin the revolutionary organizer speaking. As a theorist, nevertheless, Lenin followed Marx in maintaining that historical developments in class relations were the structural matrix from which revolutionary contests for state power arose, and in believing that class conflicts were the means by which questions about the forms and functions of state power would be resolved. Bourgeois revolutions had served to strengthen states as instruments of bureaucratic and coercive domination. Yet anti-capitalist, socialist revolutions would pave the way for the atrophy of the state as such, because there would be no occasion for state domination over the producing classes in whose name, and by whose efforts, such revolutions would be made.
The analysis of this book suggests both the truth and the limits of Lenin's vision of states and revolutions. Questions of state power have been basic in social-revolutionary transformations, but state power cannot be understood only as an instrument of class domination, nor can changes in state structures be explained primarily in terms of class conflicts. In France, Russia, and China, class conflicts-especially between peasants and landlords-were pivotal during the revolutionary interregnums. But both the occurrence of the revolutionary situations in the first place and the nature of the New Regimes that emerged from the revolutionary conflicts depended fundamentally upon the structures of state organizations and their partially autonomous and dynamic relationships to domestic class and political forces, as well as their positions in relation to other states abroad.
Prerevolutionary France, Russia, and China all had well-established imperial states with proven capacities to protect their own hegemony and that of the dominant classes against revolts from below. Before social revolutions could occur, the administrative and military power of these states had to break down. When this happened in France 1789, Russia 1917, and China 1911, it was not because of deliberate activities to that end, either on the part of avowed revolutionaries or on the part of politically powerful groups within the Old Regimes. Rather revolutionary political crises, culminating in administrative and military breakdowns, emerged because the imperial states became caught in cross-pressures between intensified military competition or intrusions from abroad and constraints imposed on monarchical responses by the existing agrarian class structures and political institutions.