Marx and Soviet Reality. Daniel Norman (1955)

IX: The Irony of History – Or the Beginning of Deception

As we have seen, the prerequisites of a Socialist revolution in the Marxian sense are a high degree of economic development – the most advanced state of capitalism – and a class-conscious proletariat, for ‘the emancipation of the working classes must be won by the working classes themselves’, as Marx wrote in the first sentence of Provisional Rules of the First International. And both Marx and Engels laid equal weight on each of these two fundamental, determining and decisive elements in their conception of a Socialist revolution.

Moreover, the working class entrusted with the task of carrying out the revolution was not a fiction. It was a reality, as was their condition that it should become the great majority of the nation and that its members had ‘to make themselves fit to take over political power’ (Marx, 15 September 1850). This was a point of view to which they remained constant with the exception of a very short period in 1850 when they compromised with Blanquism.

Towards the end of his life, Engels enunciated it once more, when he wrote in the introduction to the 1895 edition of Marx’s Class Struggles in France: ‘When it is a question of the complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must be in it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are going in for body and soul.’

It was thus not a Socialist revolution that they anticipated for Russia, where none of the prerequisites was fulfilled. Neither did they think at any moment that Russia would be able to ‘catch up’ before the revolution in the West took place, as may be seen from Engels’ conclusion to his Postscript quoted above, nor did they consider the Russian working class, still in its infancy, ‘the advanced guard of the proletariat’, as is claimed by Soviet historiographers of the Stalinist era who, to substantiate that this was Marx and Engels’ opinion, had to resort to quotations from Lenin and Stalin, as, for instance, VM Kotov’s K Marx and Fr Engels About Russia and the Russian People (Moscow, 1953).

The most complete and explicit statement was made by Engels two years after Marx’s death in a letter to Vera Zasulich (23 April 1885), in which he said: ‘What I know or believe to know about the situation in Russia, impels me towards the opinion that the Russians are approaching their 1789.’

And though it did not occur as early as he expected – ‘it may break out any day...’, he wrote – nevertheless, when at last it did take place, events followed grosso modo the pattern laid down in his letter, which continues:

This is one of the exceptional cases where it is possible for a handful of men to make a revolution... Well, if ever Blanquism – the phantasy of turning a whole society topsy-turvy by the activity of a small conspiracy – had a certain justification for its existence, it is certainly in Petersburg.

Once the fire is set to the powder, once the forces released and the national energy transformed from potential into kinetic energy..., the men who have set the mine ablaze will be blown away by the explosion, which will be a thousand times stronger than they and which will seek its issue as it can, as the economic forces and resistances determine.

Supposing these men think they can seize power, what does it matter? Provided they make the hole which will burst the dam, the torrent itself will soon rob them of their illusions. But if it so happens that these illusions had the effect of giving them a superior force of will, why complain of that? People who boasted that they had made a revolution, have always seen, next day, that they had no idea what they were doing; that the revolution made bore no resemblance whatsoever to that they wanted to make.

This is what Hegel called ‘the irony of history, irony which few historic personalities escape’. And Lenin, Trotsky and their companions are the most outstanding illustrations of this in our times.

As for Engels, he completed his picture of the future Russian Revolution as follows:

To me, the important thing is that the impetus in Russia should be given, that the revolution should break out. Whether it is this or that faction which gives the signal, whether under this or that flag, it is all one to me...

There, where the situation is so strained, where the revolutionary elements have been accumulated to such a degree, where the economic situation of the vast mass of the people is becoming more impossible from day to day, where all the stages of social development are represented, from the primitive commune to modern large-scale industry and high finance, and where all these contradictions are violently held together by an unequalled despotism... there, the 1789 once launched, 1793 will not be long in following.

Engels wrote this letter to Vera Zasulich in answer to her request for his opinion on Plekhanov’s book, Our Dispute, a merciless attack on the Narodniks (Populists), which marked the final break between the nascent Marxist group and the Populists, to which the former had previously belonged.

She tried once more to persuade Engels to settle the quarrel, but he again refused on the pretext that his knowledge of the economic and political situation in Russia was insufficient. He expressed, however, his satisfaction that a Marxist group had come into existence, but at the same time showed why he was not as severe in his judgement of the Blanquists in Russia as with the French. In fact, he was alarmed at the dogmatism and the sectarian attitude of the new adepts.

It is not without interest to note here that while Lenin considered Plekhanov’s book as a cornerstone of the history of the Socialist movement in Russia, Engels in a talk with Kautsky (recorded in a letter to Bernstein on 30 June 1885) expressed his dissatisfaction with it. Plekhanov, he said, ‘was mistaken to attack the Populists, who are the only ones to do something in Russia, at this time’. For ‘in Russia it is a question of the overthrow of Tsarism and the union of all elements for this purpose...’.

As to the future Russian Revolution, he said that:

... once in movement, it is not the Socialists, but the Liberals who will seize power in Russia. It is only when, under the impetus of this revolution, the Socialist revolution triumphs in Western Europe, that that victory could have repercussions in Russia and there bring about the rise of Socialism.

This point of view, as we have seen, Engels held to the end of his life. It proves that it was not a Socialist revolution that Marx and Engels expected in Russia, contrary to the boasts of Soviet propaganda, and emphasises the non-Marxist character of October 1917.

As Engels foresaw, Russia had her 1789, and it must be admitted that her 1793 was ‘not long in following’. It is not our purpose to discuss what might have happened if the Socialist revolution had broken out in the West as Lenin, for once in agreement with Marx and Engels, expected, nor to discuss why it did not break out. It is sufficient to emphasise one of the most tragic aspects of Marxian thought itself by raising the question: Did not Marx and Engels overestimate the will to emancipation of the working class?

Be that as it may, it cannot be doubted that they did their utmost to educate the workers and help them to become aware of their revolutionary mission.

The fact is that the West did not make its revolution, that history followed its course with Russia, mutatis mutandis, not escaping her ‘empire’ period, either.