Tony Cliff

Russia: A Marxist analysis

Chapter IV:
The material heritage of pre-October society



In the introduction to The Critique of Political Economy Marx formulated concisely the main conclusion of historical materialism. He writes:

No social order disappears before all the productive forces, for which there is room in it, have been developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society.

The Mensheviks quoted this sentence in order to prove that capitalism in Russia was not yet ripe for the socialist revolution, and that it was assured a long future until it would reach such a stage. This simple conclusion, however, neglects a whole series of factors which determine, limit or extend the possibilities of development of the productive forces.

What determined the development in Tsarist Russia was, on the one hand, the relation of forces between classes within Russia itself, and, on the other, Russia’s dependence vis-à-vis world capitalism. These two factors are dialectically knit together. If not for the unity of the world, the uneven, combined development of the different countries could not be explained: why the class struggle should take the deepest and most extreme form in such a backward country as Russia, how it was that the Russian proletariat under Tsarism was more concentrated in gigantic enterprises even than the proletariat of the USA. These phenomena are evidence of the high level of social production which the world economy had reached, and the maturity of the world for the substitution of socialist relations of production for capitalist ones. The First World War which accelerated the downfall of Tsarism was no proof of the high level of productive forces in each of the belligerent countries, but it did show that the material conditions were ripe for socialist revolution on a world scale. The series of military defeats, in which the Russian army suffered disastrous losses, showed clearly the industrial and military backwardness of Russia within the advanced world. The fact that Marxism – the fruit of the synthesis of French socialism, English economic theory and German philosophy – was imported to Russia when the workers’ movement was still in its cradle, is evidence of the spiritual unity of the world. On the other hand, the fact that opportunism and revisionism struck much weaker roots in the Russian labour movement than in the countries of the West reveals the backwardness of Russia in a world ripe for socialism: the low standard of living of the workers, kept low by the stream of peasant migration into the towns; the fact that the Russian bourgeoisie had no overseas investments and could this not use part of the resulting superprofits to bribe a layer of workers and improve temporarily the conditions of the masses as a whole for a period of time, as was done in the West; the concentration of the workers in gigantic enterprises; the fact that the country was perched precariously on the powder-barrel of the agrarian revolution.

The fact that the productive forces develop within a framework of national and international social relations, and not, as they would have it, in a vacuum, entirely invalidated the Mensheviks’ dream of the tremendous possibilities of development open to Russian capitalism. On the contrary, the continued existence of Russian capitalism in the concrete national and international relations then extant would have conserved the burden of feudalism. It would have involved the country in wars which night well have resulted in transferring backward Russia into a colony or semi-colony of the Western Powers. It would have meant that the development of the national minorities, which made up about half the population of Russia, would have continued to be hindered.

The above quotation from The Critique of Political Economy applies to the world system, not to a country in isolation. The very fact that the first proletarian revolution broke out in a backward country affirms this; it is the best witness to the ripeness of the world for the socialist revolution.

One of the fundamental causes for the insoluble crisis in the modern world, is the fact that, with the international division of labour, national boundaries have become too narrow a framework for the development of productive forces. For a country like Russia, the existence of national frontiers not only places serious obstacles in the way of getting material help from the more advanced industrial countries, but imposes the heavy burden of an armaments race with other national states.

Until Lenin’s death, no one in the Bolshevik Party suggested that Russia could build socialism by her own unaided efforts. Lenin himself repeatedly emphasised the opposite. “The Russian revolution,” he wrote, on 4 June 1918, “was due not to the special merits of the Russian proletariat, but to the course of historic events, and this proletariat was placed temporarily in the leading position by the will of history and made for a time the vanguard of the world revolution.” [1]

“We always staked our play upon an international revolution and this was unconditionally right ... we always emphasised ... the fact that in one country it is impossible to accomplish such a work as a socialist revolution.” [A]

Even after Lenin’s death, Stalin, who later propounded the idea of “socialism in one country”, said: “But to overthrow the power of the bourgeoisie and establish that of the proletariat in a single country is still not to assure the complete victory of Socialism. The chief task, the organisation of Socialist production, is still to be accomplished. Can we succeed and secure the definitive victory of Socialism in one country without the combined efforts of the proletarians of several advanced countries? Most certainly not. The efforts of a single country are enough to overthrow the bourgeoisie: this is what the history of our revolution proves. But for the definitive triumph of Socialism, the organisation of Socialist production, the efforts of one country alone are not enough, particularly of an essentially rural country like Russia; the efforts of the proletarians of several advanced countries are needed.” [B]

It need hardly be mentioned that Trotsky expressed the same internationalist idea on many occasions.

The Russian revolution can be explained by the law of uneven development, which is one facet of the unity of world development. But this law allows two possibilities of development: firstly, that the Russian revolution, being evidence of the maturity of the world for socialism, would be the prelude to a series of new revolutions which would break out immediately or after a certain interval; secondly – and this is a reformulation of the first possibility – because of the unevenness, that this “certain interval” would lengthen into years, and leave the Russian revolution isolated in a hostile capitalist world. Before October 1917, it was impossible to determine which path humanity would follow by basing oneself simply of general considerations relating to the universality of world history; the contradictions contained in this universality, i.e. the law of uneven development, must also be considered. Human practice alone can decide which way history will go. Now, we may say in retrospect what human practice, viz., the support the social democratic parties gave capitalism in Western and Central Europe, caused the failure of the revolutions that followed in the wake of the October revolution.

In order that the productive forces may develop, the social order that existed under the Tsar had to disappear. But what social order was to take its place? Seeing that the destruction of the social order of Tsarist Russia was an expression of the maturity of the world for socialism, there is no doubt that, had the revolution spread, the social order that would have taken its place would have been the first stage of communist society. But as the October revolution did not spread, what social order could appear in Russia?

The first step to take in answering this question is to analyse the material heritage handed down from the social order that existed before October.

Men do not build themselves a new world with “earthly goods” as vulgar superstition believes, but with the historical achievements of the old world which is about to go under. In the course of evolution they must begin entirely by themselves to produce the material conditions for a new society, and no effort of the human mind or will can release them from this fate. [2]



The material heritage of the Tsarist period

In 1913, 80 per cent of the population of Russia earned their livelihood from agriculture; only 10 per cent from industry, mining and transport. These figures alone are sufficient to show up the backwardness of Russia. Of all the countries of Europe only Yugoslavia, Turkey, Rumania and Bulgaria show a similar occupational distribution of the population.

As far back as the middle of the nineteenth century the countries of Western and Central Europe and the USA showed a much higher percentage of their population occupied in industry, mining and transport than did Russia in 1913. Thus in Britain in 1841 the percentage of population occupied in agriculture, fishing and forestry was 22.7, that occupied in manufacture, building, mining and transport 47.3. France, which lagged a long way behind Britain, had, in 1837, 63 per cent occupied in agriculture; in 1866 it had 43 per cent occupied in agriculture and 38 per cent in industry. Germany in 1800 had nearly two-thirds of the population occupied in agriculture; in 1852 it had 44.4 percent occupied in agriculture and 40.9 per cent occupied in industry and handicrafts. The USA, originally a country of agricultural settlement in the main, had 72.3 per cent occupied in agriculture, forestry and fishing, and 12.3 per cent occupied in manufacture, building and mining in 1780; in 1850 it had 64.8 per cent and 17.8 percent respectively.

National income statistics show clearly how poor was the material heritage which the Bolsheviks acquired on taking power; not only in comparison with the contemporary developed capitalist countries, but even with these same countries in the infancy of their capitalist development.

The most complete and accurate – in so far as accuracy is possible in such a vast and complex calculation of the national income of different countries at different periods, was undertaken by Colin Clark in his book The Conditions of Economic Progress (London, 1940).

Clark estimates the real income per occupied person in Russia in 1913 to be 306 International Units (IUs). [C]

As against this the real income per occupied person in some developed countries was [3]:

Great Britain














1850-59 [D]






1860-69 [D]


1860-69 [D]






1904-10 [D]
















Thus the average income per occupied person in Russia in 1913 was only 80.9 per cent of the corresponding figure for Britain in 1688 – nearly a hundred years before the Industrial Revolution.



The rule of the working class where the material conditions for the abolition of capitalist relations of production do not exist

Marx and Engels deal more than once with the question of what would happen if the working class took power before the historical prerequisites for the substitution of capitalist relations of production by socialist ones were present. They concluded that in such an event the working class would lose power to the bourgeoisie. The working class would be in power only temporarily and would blaze a path for the developing capitalism. Thus, for instance, Marx wrote in 1847:

If it is true that the bourgeoisie politically, that is, through state power, “maintains the injustice of property relations” [Heinzen’s expression], then it is not less true that it does not create them. The “injustice of property relations” is conditioned by the modern division of labour, the modern form of exchange, competition, concentration, etc., and does not owe its origin in any way to the political domination of the bourgeois class; ... the political domination of the bourgeois class flows from ... the existing relations of production. Therefore, if the proletariat overthrows the political domination of the bourgeoisie its victory will only be temporary, a point in the process of the bourgeois revolution itself, and will serve its cause as it did in 1794. so long as the ‘movement’ of history has not created the material conditions which make it necessary to abolish the bourgeois mode of production and therewith definitely overthrow the political domination of the bourgeoisie. The “Reign of Terror” in France therefore had to accomplish the cleansing of the surface of France from feudal ruins by its terrible hammer blows. The timid, cautious bourgeoisie would not have manage to complete this task in decades. The bloody acts of the people hence merely serves to level the path for the bourgeoisie. [4]

Engels wrote in similar vein.

The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents and for the realisation of the measures which that domination would imply ... he necessarily finds himself in a dilemma. What he can do is in contrast to all his actions as hitherto practised, to all his principles and to the present interests of his party; what he ought to do cannot be achieved. In a word, he is compelled to represent not his party nor his class, but the class for whom conditions are ripe for domination. In the interests of the movement itself, he is compelled to defend the interests of an alien class, and to feed his own class with phrases and promises, with the assertion that the interests of that alien class are their own interests. Whoever puts himself in this awkward position is irrevocably lost. [5]

What Marx and Engels say about a revolution which brings the proletariat to power before the historical premises for the transition from capitalism to socialism exist, does not apply directly to the October revolution. This is so not only because the material historical premises were present on an international scale, but also because of the specific conditions obtaining in Russia. Not only was the Russian bourgeoisie overthrown politically, but it was also expropriated economically a few months after October. The rural bourgeoisie that remained did not succeed in overthrowing the proletariat, and its social weight, especially from the time of the Five-Year Plan, was almost negligible. The isolation of October did not make it “a point in the process” of the development of the Russian bourgeoisie because the Russian bourgeoisie was annihilated. If so, what relations of production could come after October?



Socialist relations of production

The establishment of socialist relations of production demands a much higher level of productive forces than was the heritage of Tsarism. Engels’ explanation of the reason for class division in society, for the division into exploiters and exploited, entirely fitted Russia’s conditions even after October:

The division of society into an exploiting and an exploited class, a ruling and an oppressed class, was the necessary outcome of the low development of production hitherto. So long as the sum of social labour yielded a product which only slightly exceeded what was necessary for the bare existence of all; so long, therefore, as all or almost all the time of the great majority of the members of society was absorbed in labour, so long was society necessarily divided into classes. Alongside of this great majority exclusively absorbed in labour there developed a class, freed from direct productive labour, which managed the general business of society: the direction of labour, affairs of state, justice, science, art and so forth. It is therefore the law of the division of labour which lies at the root of the division into classes. But this does not mean that this division into classes was not established by violence and robbery, by deception and fraud, or that the ruling class, once in the saddle, has ever failed to strengthen its domination at the cost of the working class and to convert its social management into the exploitation of the masses. [6]



Capitalist function

The historical mission of the bourgeoisie is summed up in Lenin’s two postulates: “Increase in the productive forces of social labour and the socialisation of labour.” On a world scale this task had already been fulfilled. In Russia the revolution got rid of the impediments to the development of the productive forces, put an end to the remnants of feudalism, built up a monopoly of foreign trade which protects the development of the productive forces of the country from the devastating pressure of world capitalism, and also gave a tremendous lever to the development of the productive forces in the form of state ownership of the means of production. Under such conditions, all the impediments to the historical mission of capitalism – the socialisation of labour and concentration of the means of production which are necessary prerequisites for the establishment of socialism and which the bourgeoisie was not able to provide are abolished. Post-October Russia stood before the fulfilment of the historical mission of the bourgeoisie.

Even in an advanced country there will be certain bourgeois tasks which a victorious proletarian revolution will have to accomplish. For instance, in certain parts of the USA (mainly agriculture) the development of the productive forces is impeded under the capitalist system, so that social production and the concentration of the means of production is not yet realised. But because the productive forces of the USA as a whole are very well developed, these bourgeois tasks will be only accessories, subordinate to the work of building a socialist society. Thus, for instance, the establishment of social production and the concentration of the means of production where they do not yet exist, will not be achieved by the creation of a proletariat on the one hand and capital on the other; the labourers from the beginning will not be divorced from the means of production. In contrast to this, the fulfilment of the bourgeois tasks was the central problem in post-October Russia with its low level of national income. In the United States the addition of new means of production necessary for the socialisation of labour can be accompanied by a rise in the standard of living of the masses, by a strengthening of the element of conviction in production discipline, by the fortification of workers’ control, by the progressive dwindling of the differences in income between manual and mental workers, etc. But can this be achieved in a backward country under conditions of siege? Can labour discipline based mainly on conviction prevail when the level of production is very low? Can a quick tempo of accumulation, necessitated by the backwardness of the country and the pressure of world capitalism, be accomplished without the separation of society into the managers of the general business of society and the managed, the directors of labour and the directed? Could such a separation be ended before those who directed production also directed distribution in their own interests? Can a workers’ revolution in a backward country isolated by triumphant international capitalism be anything but ‘a point in the process’ of the development of capitalism, even if the capitalist class is abolished?



Why the Five-Year Plan signifies the transformation of the bureaucracy into a ruling class

In Chapters 1 and 2 we have seen that the inauguration of the Five-Year Plan marked the turning point in the development of the relations of distribution, in the relations between accumulation and consumption, between the productivity of labour and the standard of living of the workers, in the control over production, in the legal status of the workers, in the institution of forced labour, in the relation of agriculturalists to the means of production, in the tremendous swelling of the turnover tax, and finally, in the structure and organisation of the state machine. The reality of industrialisation and collectivisation turned out to be in absolute contradiction to the hopes the masses placed in them, and even to the illusions held by the bureaucracy itself. They thought the Five-Year Plans would take Russia far in the direction of socialism. However, this is not the first time in history that the results of human actions are in outright contradiction to the wishes and hopes of the actors themselves.

How can we answer the question: Why was the First Five-Year Plan such a turning point?

It was now, for the first time, that the bureaucracy sought to create a proletariat and to accumulate capital rapidly. In other words, it was now that the bureaucracy sought to realise the historical mission of the bourgeoisie as quickly as possible. A quick accumulation of capital on the basis of a low level of production, of a small national income per capita, must put a burdensome pressure on the consumption of the masses, on their standard of living. Under such conditions, the bureaucracy, transformed into a personification of capital, for whom the accumulation of capital is the be-all and end-all here, must get rid of all remnants of workers’ control, must substitute conviction in the labour process by coercion, must atomise the working class, must force all social-political life into a totalitarian mould. It is obvious that the bureaucracy, which became necessary in the process of capital accumulation, and which became the oppressor of the workers, would not be tardy in making use of its social supremacy in the relations of production in order to gain advantages for itself in the relations of distribution. Thus industrialisation and technical revolution in agriculture (“collectivisation”) in a backward country under conditions of siege transforms the bureaucracy from a layer which is under the direct and indirect pressure and control of the proletariat, into a ruling class, into a manager of “the general business of society: the direction of labour, affairs of state, justice, science, art and so forth”.

Dialectical historical development, full of contradictions and surprises, brought it about that the first step the bureaucracy took with the subjective intention of hastening the building of “socialism in one country” became the foundation of the building of state capitalism.




A. 6 November 1920. Lenin, Works (Russian) 3d ed., Vol.XXV, pp.473-4. My emphasis; these words are struck out of the fourth edition of Lenin’s Works (Russian). See Vol.XXXI, p.370.

B. Stalin, The Theory and Practice of Leninism, Communist Party of Great Britain, 1925, pp.45-6. In the second Russian edition of this book, which appeared in December 1924, the above section is omitted, and instead one reads: “Having consolidated its power, and taking the lead of the peasantry, the proletariat of the victorious country can and must build a socialist society ... Such in general are the characteristic features of the Leninist theory of the proletarian revolution.” (Stalin, Works (Russian) Vol.VI, pp.107-8; also Stalin, Problems of Leninism, pp.27-8.)

C. Clark defines the “International Unit” as “the amount of goods and services which one dollar would purchase in USA over the average of the period 1925-34”.

D. Annual average.



1. V.I. Lenin, Works (Russian), Vol.XXVII, p.387.

2. K. Marx, Die Moralisierende Kritik und die Kritische Moral. Beitrag zur deutschen Kulturgeschichte. Gegen Karl Heinzen. Aus dem literarischen Nachlass von Marx Engels und Lassalle, Stuttgart 1902, Vol.2, p.456.

3. C. Clark, The Conditions of Economic Progress, London 1940, pp.79, 83, 91, 98.

4. K. Marx, Die Moralisierende Kritik und die Kritische Moral, op. cit. My emphasis.

5. F. Engels, The Peasant War in Germany, London 1927, pp.135-136.

6. F. Engels, Socialism Utopian and Scientific in Marx-Engels, Selected Works, Vol.I, p.183.


Last updated on 29.8.2002