Lenin: A Study on the Unity of his Thought. Georg Lukacs 1924

2. The Proletariat as the Leading Class

The instability of conditions in Russia had become apparent long before the real development of capitalism there, long before the existence of an industrial proletariat. Already much earlier, the break-up of agrarian feudalism and the decay of bureaucratic absolutism had not only become undeniable facts of Russian reality but had led to the formation of strata which rose up from time to time against Tsarism, even if still in an ill-defined, confused, and merely instinctive way – to peasant unrest and radicalization of the so-called de-classed intelligentsia. Clearly, the development of capitalism, however much its actual existence as well as its significance remained obscure to even acute observers, sharply heightened the objective confusion and its revolutionary ideological consequences. In the second half of the nineteenth century it must have been increasingly obvious that Russia, in 1848 still the secure refuge of European reaction, was gradually developing towards revolution. The only question was: what would be the character of this revolution? And, closely allied to this: which class should play the leading role in it?

It is easy to understand why the first generation of revolutionaries was extremely unclear as to how to pose such questions. They saw in the groups which rose up against the Tsar first and foremost a homogenous element: the people. The division into intellectuals and manual workers was clear even at this stage. But it was not of decisive importance because there could only be very ill-defined class outlines among ‘the people’, while only really honest revolutionaries among the intellectuals joined the movement – revolutionaries who regarded it as their implacable duty to merge themselves with ‘the people’ and represent only its interests.

Yet even at this stage of the revolutionary movement, the developments in Europe were bound to impinge on events and therefore to effect the historical perspective from which the revolutionaries evaluated them. Here the question automatically arose: was the European course of development, the development of capitalism, the inescapable fate of Russia as well? Must Russia too pass through the capitalist hell before finding salvation in socialism? Or could she, because she was unique, because of her still-existent village communes, by-pass this stage and find a path from primitive direct to developed communism?

The answer to this question was by no means as obvious then as it seems to us now. Had not Engels still answered it in 1882 by saying that if a Russian revolution simultaneously produced a European proletarian revolution, ‘then the system of communal property in today’s Russia can serve as a point of departure for the development of communism’ ?

This is not the place even to outline the disputes fought over this issue. It simply forces us to choose our starting-point, because with it arose the question: which was to be the leading class of the coming revolution in Russia? For it is clear that the recognition of village communism as its point of origin and economic foundation necessarily makes the peasantry the leading class of social transformation. And, corresponding to this difference from Europe in its economic and social basis, the revolution would have to look for other theoretical foundations than historical materialism, which is no more than the conceptual expression of the necessary transition of society from capitalism to socialism under the leadership of the working class. The argument as to whether Russia is in the process of developing along capitalist lines – whether Russian capitalism is capable of development – further, the theoretico-methodological controversy as to whether historical materialism is a generally valid theory of social development and, finally, the discussion centering on which class in society is called upon to be the real motive force of the Russian revolution – all turn on the same question. They are all ideological reflections of the evolution of the Russian proletariat – moments in the development of its ideological (and corresponding tactical, organizational) independence from other social classes.

This is a protracted and painful process through which every labour movement must pass. Only the individual problems in which the particularities of the class situation and the autonomy of the class interest of the proletariat express themselves constitute its specifically Russian element. (The German working class was at a comparable stage in the Lassalle-Bebel-Schweitzer period and German unity constituted one of its decisive problems.) But a correct solution to precisely these local problems as such must be found if the proletariat as a class is to win its independence of action. The best theoretical training is absolutely worthless if it limits itself to generalities: to be effective in practice it must express itself by solving precisely these particular problems. (Wilhelm Liebknecht, for example, although a passionate internationalist and direct pupil of Marx, was by no means able more often or more reliably to make the right decisions than the Lassalleaner, who were much more confused on a purely theoretical level.) But what is further peculiar to Russia here is that this theoretical struggle for the independence of the proletariat, for the recognition of its leading role in the coming revolution, has nowhere found so clear and unequivocal a solution as precisely in Russia. Thus, the Russian proletariat was to a great extent spared those hesitations and regressions to be found in the experience of all the developed countries without exception – not in the course of successful class struggle where they are unavoidable, but in theoretical clarity and in tactical and organizational confidence. At least it’s most conscious stratum was able to evolve, theoretically and organizationally, as directly and as clearly as its objective class situation had evolved from the economic forces of Russian capitalism.

Lenin was not the first to take up this struggle. But he was alone in thinking through every question radically to its very end: in radically transforming his theoretical insight into practice.

Lenin was only one among other theoretical spokesmen in the fight against ‘primitive’ Russian socialism, against the Narodniks. This was understandable: his theoretical struggle aimed to establish the independent and leading role of the proletariat in determining the fate of Russia. However, because the course and substance of this argument could only consist in proving that the typical path taken by capitalist development as outlined by Marx (i.e. primitive accumulation) was also valid for Russia – that a viable capitalism could and must exist there – this debate perforce brought the spokesmen of proletarian class struggle and the ideologists of nascent Russian capitalism temporarily into one camp. For the theoretical differentiation of the proletariat from the amorphous mass of ‘the people’ by no means automatically brought with it the knowledge and recognition of its independence and leading role. On the contrary, the simple, mechanistic, undialectical logic of the proof that the developmental tendencies of the Russian economy pointed in the direction of capitalism appeared to be the unqualified acceptance and promotion of its approach. This was true not only for the progressive bourgeoisie whose – temporarily – ‘Marxist’ ideology is readily understandable when it is borne in mind that Marxism is the only economic theory which demonstrates the inevitability of the rise of capitalism from the decomposition of the pre-capitalist world. It must appear even more necessary to all ‘proletarian’ Marxists who have interpreted Marx mechanistically instead of dialectically; who do not understand what Marx learnt from Hegel and incorporated in his own theory, freed from all mythology and idealism: that the recognition of a fact or tendency as actually existing by no means implies that it must be accepted as a reality constituting a norm for our own actions. It may be the sacred duty of every genuine Marxist to face the facts squarely and without illusions, but for every genuine Marxist there is always a reality more real and therefore more important than isolated facts and tendencies – namely, the reality of the total process, the totality of social development. Hence, Lenin writes: ‘The bourgeoisie makes it its business to promote trusts, drive women and children into the factories, subject them to corruption and suffering, condemn them to extreme poverty. We do not “demand” such development, we do not “support” it. We fight it. But how do we fight? We explain that trusts and the employment of women in industry are progressive. We do not want a return to the handicraft system, to pre-monopoly capitalism, domestic drudgery for women. Forward through trusts, etc., and beyond them to socialism!’

This provides the standpoint for the Leninist solution to this whole range of questions. It follows that the recognition of the necessity of capitalist development in Russia and of the historical progress implicit in this development by no means compels the proletariat to support it. The proletariat must welcome it, for it alone establishes the basis of its own appearance as the decisive force; but it must welcome it as the condition and the premise of its own bitter struggle against the real protagonist of capitalism – against the bourgeoisie.

Only this dialectical understanding of the element of necessity in historical tendencies created the theoretical space for the autonomous appearance of the proletariat in the class war. If the necessity of capitalist development in Russia is simply accepted after the fashion of the ideological pioneers of the Russian bourgeoisie and, later, the Mensheviks, it would follow that Russia must before all else complete its capitalist development. The protagonist of this development is the bourgeoisie. According to this schema, only after it has progressed a long way, after the bourgeoisie has swept away both the economic and political vestiges of feudalism and has established a modern, capitalist, democratic state in its place, can the independent class struggle of the proletariat begin. A premature appearance of the proletariat with independent class aims is not only useless, because it is barely worth considering as an autonomous force in the battle between the bourgeoisie and Tsarism, but is also disastrous for the proletariat itself. It frightens the bourgeoisie, decreases its striking power against Tsarism and drives it straight into its arms. According to this interpretation, for the time being the proletariat can only be considered an auxiliary of the progressive bourgeoisie in the struggle for a modern Russia.

It is clear today, even though it was not at the time, that this whole debate was rooted in the question of the actuality of the revolution: For those who were not more or less conscious bourgeois ideologists, paths separated according to whether the revolution was seen as a current issue on the agenda of the labour movement, or as a distant ‘end goal’ on which current decisions seemed unsuited to exercise any definite influence. It is indeed more than questionable whether the Menshevik position, even if its historical perspective could be considered correct, would ever be acceptable to the proletariat; whether such faithful vassals of the bourgeoisie would not obscure class-consciousness so completely that dissociation from the bourgeoisie as an independent act by the proletariat would be made ideologically impossible or at least considerably more difficult at a historical moment considered appropriate even by Menshevik theory (one need only think here of the English working class). Admittedly this is, in practice, idle speculation. The dialectic of history, which opportunists try to eliminate from Marxism, is nevertheless bound to operate on them against their will, driving them into the bourgeois camp and in their eyes postponing the independent appearance of the proletariat into the hazy distance of a virtually non-existent future.

History justified Lenin and the few who proclaimed the actuality of the revolution. The alliance of the progressive bourgeoisie, which had already proved an illusion at the time of the struggle for German unity, would only have survived if it had been possible for the proletariat as a class to follow the bourgeoisie into its alliance with Tsarism. For the actuality of the revolution means that the bourgeoisie has ceased to be a revolutionary class. No doubt, compared with absolutism and feudalism, the economic system whose protagonist and beneficiary is the bourgeoisie represents progress. But this progressive character of the bourgeoisie is again dialectical. The necessary link between the economic premises of the bourgeoisie and its demands for political democracy or the rule of law, which – even if only partially -was established in the great French Revolution on the ruins of feudal absolutism, has grown looser. On the one hand, the increasingly swift approach of the proletarian revolution makes possible an alliance between the bourgeoisie and feudal absolutism in which the conditions for the economic existence and growth of the bourgeoisie are secured by the political hegemony of the old ruling forces. On the other hand, the bourgeoisie, in its ideological decadence resulting from this alliance, abandons the realization of its own former revolutionary demands to the proletarian revolution.

However problematic this alliance between the bourgeoisie and the old ruling powers may be, since it is of course a compromise which springs from mutual fear of a greater evil and not a class alliance based on common interests, it still remains an important new fact beside which the schematic and mechanistic ‘proof of the ‘necessary link’ uniting capitalist development to democracy must reveal itself to be a complete illusion. ‘In any case,’ said Lenin, ‘political democracy – even if it is in theory normal for so-called pure capitalism – is only one of the possible forms of the superstructure over capitalism. The facts themselves prove that both capitalism and imperialism develop under and in turn subjugate any political forms.’ In Russia specifically, the reason for this swift volte-face by the bourgeoisie from a position of – apparent – radical opposition to Tsarism to support of it lies essentially in the ‘inorganic’ development of capitalism grafted onto Russia, which even in its origins displayed a pronouncedly monopolistic character (dominance of large-scale industry, role of finance capital). From this it followed that the bourgeoisie was a numerically smaller and socially weaker stratum there than in other countries which underwent a more ‘organic’ capitalist development. However, at the same time, the material foundations for the development of a revolutionary proletariat were laid down sooner in the large-scale factories than the purely statistical estimates of the pace of Russian capitalist development would have suggested.

But if alliance with the progressive bourgeoisie proves illusory, and if the proletariat in its progress towards independence has already made its final break with the chaotic concept of the people’, will it not, precisely because of this hard-won independence, be totally isolated and therefore involved in a necessarily hopeless struggle? This frequent and very obvious objection to Lenin’s historical perspective would be valid if the rejection of the agrarian theories of the Narodniks, the recognition of the necessary dissolution of the vestiges of agrarian communism, were not also dialectical. The dialectic of this process of dissolution – for dialectical understanding is always only the conceptual form of a real dialectical fact – lies in the inevitability of the dissolution of these old forms only having an unambiguous, definite direction in so far as it is a process of dissolution, in other words only negatively. Its positive direction is by no means inherent in it and depends on the evolution of the social environment, on the rate of the whole historical context. Put more concretely: the economically unavoidable dissolution of the old agrarian forms – of the large as well as of the small estates – can proceed in two different ways. ‘Both solutions, each in its different way,’ said Lenin, ‘facilitate the change to a higher stage of technology and point towards agricultural progress.’ One is the sweeping-away from the lives of the peasantry of all vestiges of medieval and earlier practices. The other – Lenin called it the Prussian way – ‘is characterized by the legacy of medieval landed property not being abolished all at once but gradually adapted to capitalism’. Both are possible. Compared with what existed before, both are economically progressive. But if they are both equally possible and – in a certain sense – equally progressive, what decides which of the two is destined to become reality? Lenin’s answer to this question, as to any other, is clear and unambiguous: the class struggle.

Thus the outlines of the situation in which the proletariat, on its own, is called upon to play the leading role become sharper and more concrete. For the decisive force in this class struggle, which for Russia points the way to the transition from medieval to modern times, can only be the proletariat. The peasants, not only because of their extreme cultural backwardness, but above all because of their objective class position, are only capable of instinctive revolt against their increasingly intolerable situation. Because of their objective class position they are doomed to remain a politically vacillating stratum – a class whose destiny is ultimately decided by the urban class struggle, the destiny of the towns, large-scale industry, the state apparatus.

Only this context places the decision in the hands of the proletariat. Its struggle against the bourgeoisie would at a given historical moment be less promising if the bourgeoisie succeeded in abolishing Russian agricultural feudalism in its own way. The fact that Tsarism makes this difficult is the main reason for the temporarily revolutionary, or at least the oppositional, posture of the bourgeoisie. But as long as this question remains unresolved, the elemental explosion of the enslaved and impoverished millions on the land remains a permanent possibility: an elemental explosion to which only the proletariat can give a direction. It alone can lead this mass movement to a goal of real benefit to the peasantry, and which will create the conditions in which the proletariat can take up the struggle against Tsarism with every hope of victory.

Thus, Russia’s socio-economic structure established the objective basis for the alliance of proletariat and peasantry. Their class aims were different. That is why the crude soldering together of their forces in the name of vague and populist concepts like ‘the people’ was eventually bound to fall apart. However, it is only by joint struggle that they can realize their different aims. Thus the old Narodnik ideas return dialectically transformed in Lenin’s characterization of the Russian revolution. The vague and abstract concept of ‘the people’ had to be rejected, but only so that a revolutionary, discriminating, concept of ‘the people’ – the revolutionary alliance of all the oppressed – could develop from a concrete understanding of the conditions of the proletarian revolution. This was why Lenin’s party justifiably considered itself the heir to the real Narodnik revolutionary tradition. But because the consciousness and ability to lead this struggle exist – in objective class terms – only in the class-consciousness of the proletariat, it alone can and must be the leading class of social transformation in the approaching revolution.