Marx and Soviet Reality. Daniel Norman (1955)

VIII: Marx and Engels and the Russian Revolution

The Russians are very proud of the fact that Marx and Engels showed great interest in their country. Indeed, Russia was one of their main subjects, and their statements concerning past, contemporary and future Russia would fill volumes.

It is perhaps exaggerated to go as far as do Soviet historians, such as Professor Kozhevnikov (in Sovetskoye Gosudarstvo I Pravo, no 12, 1950), and say: ‘It is impossible to study the history of our country without thorough research into Marx and Engels’ statements on Russia.’ If such research and study had been possible since 1934, Russian history would certainly have been written otherwise, and the professor’s next sentence would have been superfluous. ‘Unfortunately’, he continues, ‘there is still no complete and systematic collection of Marx and Engels’ statements about Russia.’

Indeed, we have been offered a curiously incomplete Marx on Britain, a Marx on China, on India, etc, but it is almost a certainty that the Soviet regime will not give satisfaction to the distinguished professor, as we shall see further in our chapter on the fate of Marx and Engels’ works in Russia.

But, above all, the Russians are proud that the founders of ‘scientific Socialism’ both ‘expected’ and ‘foretold’ the Russian Revolution. Quotations such as ‘no doubt Russia stands on the verge of a revolution’, or ‘all the conditions for a revolution are present’, and ‘this revolution is certainly coming’ (all three are taken from one single paragraph of the Postscript to Internationales aus dem Volkstaat) are always cropping up in their writings and letters of a certain period. It is just this kind of non-committal sentence that the Russians like to quote. But, as always with them, this is only part of the truth, and they would be very embarrassed if forced to give the whole, for the revolution Marx and Engels foretold had nothing in common, as we shall see, with the one the Bolsheviks pretend to have achieved.

Marx and Engels’ prophecies in this domain are more important than would appear at first sight, as they help to place more exactly not only the Russian Revolution, but also the Bolsheviks and Soviet reality in relation to Marx and Engels.

During their lifetime Marx and Engels had much to do with Russians, both the exiles and those living in their own country. In general, they got on very badly with the refugees (their quarrels with Herzen and Bakunin are famous) and established for themselves a reputation of rabid Russophobia; on the other hand, they showed infinitely more patience and clemency towards those who fought Tsarist despotism at home, endeavouring to help them to understand and solve the problems that faced them (Marx and Engels’ long correspondence with Danielson is the best example) or with the representatives of the nascent group of Marxists – Vera Zasulich, Plekhanov, etc, and on these relations the Soviets try to establish the reputation of their Russophilia.

Yet Marx and Engels were neither Russophiles nor Russophobes. Their hatred was not directed against the Russian people and everything Russian as such. Its object was Russian autocracy, Russian despotism. In fact, their hatred of any autocracy whatsoever, Western or Eastern, was particularly violent against the Tsarist regime, because of its expansionist character. For Tsarist despotism, like the Soviet, far from being merely an internal affair of the Russians, was a potential export which threatened not only the weaker neighbouring nations but the whole world as well, thus becoming the chief menace, in their opinion, to the Western Socialist revolution.

They equally loathed the messianic character of Pan-Slavism, in which they saw the instrument of expansion of Russian despotism. No less virulent attacks were reserved also for the other messianism, the Socialist one of Herzen, Mikhailovsky, Tkachov and the many other Russian Socialists who shared ‘the childish conception’ that the Russians were ‘the chosen people of Socialism’, and believed that the ‘rotten and degenerate’ West could be rejuvenated by the Russians who, as Tkachov put it, were ‘by instinct and tradition Communists’. But while they used the big whip against the exiled standard-bearers of this theory, they refused to judge the men and women who, although only a few hundred, by their sacrifices and heroic deeds, brought the Tsarist absolutism to contemplate the possibility and the conditions of a capitulation. They added: ‘We do not blame them for having considered their Russian people to be the chosen people of the Socialist revolution. But this is not a reason for us to share their illusions. The time of chosen peoples is forever past.’ (Postscript to Internationales aus dem Volkstaat)

The foundation on which the Russian revolutionaries of the second half of the nineteenth century laid their hopes of avoiding capitalism in Russia and passing directly to Socialism was the continued existence of different primitive collective forms of ownership of the land, and other means of production, such as the mir and the artel. [4] Again and again the Russian Socialists sought advice from Marx, whose Russian translation of Capital was much thought of in their ranks; its chapters on capitalist accumulation, however, shattered their confidence in the possibility of a direct passage to Socialism.

Marx, as we have seen at the end of the previous chapter, and Engels later, tried in vain to explain to them that this could be possible if (i) these primitive Communist forms survived up to the day of the revolution, which they doubted more and more as time went on, and if (ii) the Socialist revolution had succeeded in the West before or at least at the same time as in Russia. But at no moment did they envisage the possibility of a successful Socialist revolution in backward Russia showing the way to the civilised world.

It is in Engels’ polemic (written in 1874 at Marx’s express request) against the Russian Blanquist, Tkachov, that the most illuminating statements on this question are to be found.

Commenting on Tkachov’s affirmation that the future Russian revolution would be ‘a social revolution...’, Engels wrote:

Every real revolution, to the extent to which it brings about the rule of a new class and permits it to reorganise the social structure according to its own needs, is a social revolution. But what he [Tkachov] wants to say is that it will be a Socialist revolution, which will introduce into Russia the type of society aimed at by West European Socialism even before we have achieved it in the West – and all this, in a social situation where both the proletariat and the bourgeoisie exist only in sporadic form and have not passed beyond the inferior stage of development.

One cannot help wondering whose pupils the Bolsheviks are, Marx and Engels’ or Tkachov’s?

‘And this’, continues Engels ironically, ‘should be possible, because the Russians are, so to speak, the chosen people of Socialism and have the artel and collective ownership of land.’ In fact, ‘the predominance of the artel form of organisation in Russia proves only the existence of a strong drive for association among the Russian people but does not prove at all that this drive makes possible a direct jump from the artel to the Socialist society...’ (Social Problems in Russia, reprinted in Internationales aus dem Volkstaat).

The revolution sought by modern Socialism [explains Engels] is, briefly, the victory of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie and the reorganisation of society by the abolition of all class distinctions.

Only when the social forces of production have reached a very high degree of development does it become possible to increase production to such an extent that the abolition of classes represents a real and durable progress without causing stagnation, or even a regression in the mode of social production. This has only been reached by the productive forces when in the hands of the bourgeoisie. Consequently, the existence of the bourgeoisie is from this point of view also as necessary a condition for the Socialist revolution as the proletariat. A person who maintains that this revolution could be carried out more easily in his country because it neither has proletariat nor bourgeoisie, proves by his statement that he has understood nothing of Socialism. [Our italics]

This is, however, what contemporary ‘Communists’ maintain.

Twenty years later, when he was still arguing with his Russian correspondents, and especially with his friend Danielson, about the possibility of shortening the ‘process of development towards a Socialist society’, he reprinted the Social Problems in Russia, and wrote the Postscript in which he tackled the problem anew and most emphatically declared:

... it is not only possible but certain that, after the victory of the proletariat and the transfer of the means of production to common ownership amongst Western European peoples, the countries which have just entered the stage of capitalist production and have still preserved, wholly or in part, their institutions of gentile society, will derive from these remnants... a powerful means of considerably shortening their process of development towards a Socialist society.

However, this would happen:

... only when the capitalist economy has been overcome in its homeland and the countries where it is flourishing... only then can this shortening process of development commence. But then it will be tackled with a certainty of success. And this goes for all countries in a pre-capitalistic stage of development, not only for Russia... [where, Engels admits] it will be relatively easier, because a part of the indigenous population has already acquired the intellectual achievements of capitalistic development and it will thus be possible here, in a revolutionary period, to accomplish the social transformation almost simultaneously with the West. [Our italics]

Engels concludes his Postscript in the following terms:

However, this much is certain: the first condition for a survival of what remains from the communal village is the overthrow of Tsarist despotism, the revolution in Russia. This revolution will not only uproot the great mass of the nation, the peasants, out of the isolation of their villages, from the mir which forms their world, to bring them on to the great stage where they will learn to know the world abroad and with it themselves, their own condition and the means to get out of their present destitution; at the same time it will give a new impetus to the working-class movement of the West, and provide it with better conditions for the struggle. Thus it will hasten the victory of modern industrial proletariat, without which contemporary Russia cannot achieve a socialist transformation neither proceeding from the village community nor from capitalism. [Our italics] [5]

In a letter to Plekhanov, written shortly before his death, Engels comments on the effect his Russian studies reprinted in Internationales aus dem Volkstaat and the Postscript ‘written partly with Danielson in mind’ had on his friend (that is, Danielson), and says: ‘It is impossible to discuss with this generation of Russians to which he belongs, and who still believe in the spontaneous-Communist mission which distinguishes Russia, the real Holy Russia, from the other, profane peoples.’ (26 February 1895)

And he adds:

Moreover, in a country like yours where the great modern industry is grafted on to the primitive peasant commune, and where all the phases of intermediary civilisation are represented at the same time, which besides is more or less surrounded by an intellectual Wall of China erected by despotism; it is not astonishing that the most peculiar and extravagant combinations of ideas come into being.

Had Engels lived only twenty-five years more, he would have seen how right he was, and how little has changed in Russia in this respect, as well as how the heirs of the Herzens and Mikhailovskys and other Tkachovs have used his and Marx’s names to cover their activities, to split the working-class movement and discredit their teachings.

For Lenin’s and Stalin’s conception of a Socialist revolution and proletarian dictatorship by proxy (that is, by Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, representing a small militarily and bureaucratically disciplined minority of professional revolutionaries, called the Party, representing in its turn the proletariat, itself only a small minority of the Russian people), is certainly borrowed rather from Tkachov than from Marx and Engels.