Marx, Trotsky and Lenin on Russia

Introduction and Explanatory Notes

(November 1942)

From The New International, Vol. VIII No. 10, November 1942, pp. 296–298.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

It is worth giving more than casual attention to the studies of Russia by Marx, Trotsky and Lenin which appear elsewhere in this issue. Except for Lenin’s, which appeared obscurely twenty years ago in the English edition of International Press Correspondence, these documents are published for the first time in the English-speaking world.

The Marx-Zasulich material was rescued from oblivion by the tireless efforts of the great Marxian scholar, D. Riazanov, recently dead in Stalinist exile. As early as 1911, in going through the papers of Marx’s son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, Riazanov discovered several pages covered with the tiny handwriting of Marx, and criss-crossed almost to the point of illegibility with deletions, insertions and corrections of all sorts. He soon found that he had discovered a number of drafts of a reply to a letter to Marx from Vera Zasulich, dated February 16, 1881. Zasulich was the famous former terrorist who had turned Marxist; was one of the closest comrades of George Plekhanov, father of Russian Marxism, and for that matter of Lenin; and in the early years of this century shared a place with these two on the editorial board of the famous party organ-in-exile in Switzerland, Iskra.

Oddly enough, inquiries from both Zasulich and Plekhanov failed to stir their memories about the exchange of correspondence with Marx. They had literally forgotten about it, and their categorical negative convinced the indefatigable Riazanov for years that he was on a false trail. However, in the summer of 1923, he learned from the Menshevik, Boris Nikolayevsky, in Berlin, that a letter from Marx had been found among the papers of the old Russian Menshevik, Paul Axelrod. A comparison of it with the old drafts discovered a dozen years earlier proved that it was indeed a final copy of a letter to Zasulich, the one that had actually been sent. It was published by Nikolayevsky in the original French a short time later, in his Material for the History of the Revolutionary Movement, based on P.B. Axelrod’s archives.

With the scrupulousness and scholarship that distinguished him, Riazanov undertook to decipher the almost illegible text of Marx’s original drafts, of which there were four. In fact, he started the painstaking job as early as 1913, in Vienna, aided by the late Bukharin; he finished it in Moscow alter the Bolshevik Revolution. The original letter by Zasulich, the four drafts of a reply by Marx, as well as the final text, which was actually sent off, appeared in the original French text in the first volume of the Marx-Engels Archives issued by Riazanov, its founder, as the periodical of the then (1925) still authoritative Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow. Our translation is made from that text.

Three Fundamental Contributions

In this issue, we print, of course, Zasulich’s letter and Marx’s final and rather summary reply, but also, in full, the first of the four drafts found at Lafargue’s. It is the most elaborate of them all. The repetitiousness – the document is a much-worked-over and much-corrected and re-corrected draft – in certain parts does not seriously dilute the richness of Marx’s thought and the flavor of its expression. As for its contents, comment is reserved for later on. It may suffice here to point out that so far as the literal point inquired about by Zasulich is concerned, it soon ceased to be the lively subject of debate in the Russian movement that it was when she wrote the letter. Only two years later, Zasulich acknowledged (in an introduction to a Russian translation of Engels) that the disintegration of the Russian rural commune was proceeding apace and inevitably, and that only remnants of it would survive the day of the socialist revolution against the growing capitalism of Russia.

Trotsky’s The Social Development of Russia and Czarism is the first chapter of his own introduction to the first German edition of his book on the Russian Revolution of 1905. It was written in Vienna in 1908 and 1909, based roughly on his Russian book of 1907, Our Revolution. In response to numerous requests, Trotsky permitted the publication of a new German edition in 1922. This one was much more elaborate than the original and contained much supplementary material, including Trotsky’s pre-war polemics against the Mensheviks on the character of the Russian Revolution, etc. The new edition was published by the Communist International, first in German and then in French. This fact has special significance inasmuch as it is in this collection of books and articles that Trotsky developed his famous theory of the permanent revolution. Despite all its polemical liveliness and theoretical persistency, it evidently occurred to nobody in the Russian party or the International, in 1922 and while Lenin was still alive, to provide the Trotsky work with commentaries charging – as soon became first the fashion and then the obligation of all who said anything in the Russian party or the International – that his old views on the permanent revolution were in diametrical opposition to Leninism, represented an “underestimation of the peasantry,” and (later in the Stalinist degeneration of Russia) constituted downright counter-revolutionism. The chapter on the peculiarities of Russia’s development which we print in this issue is translated from the original German of almost thirty-five years ago. From Lenin’s works, we publish the principal sections of the political report he delivered on March 29, 1922, to the eleventh congress of the Communist Party of Russia, held in Moscow. Unfortunately, the speech as a whole, to say nothing of the speech plus the concluding remarks, is much too long to be published here in its entirety. We have sought to select the most important, the most interesting and the most germane passages – that is, those most germane to an understanding of Russia then and Russia now.

This report was Lenin’s last public appearance before the Russian party, and took place between two long-lasting periods of that illness which was to prove fatal less than two years later. In fact, it was his last speech but one – the one he delivered at the end of the same year on the prospects of the world revolution at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International. It is not too much, then, to say that this report, exceptionally lengthy, detailed, all-embracing, and caustically candid – even for a Lenin report – may be considered as a political testament to the party.

* * *

Gauging Russia’s Historical Development

None of the three documents we publish is a substitute for the much more thorough analysis that must be made if we are to understand the by no means simple phenomena of Russia’s development from Czarist primitiveness to the Bolshevik Revolution and from the revolution to the Stalinist counter-revolution. Yet, each of them, in its own way and for its own time, provides broad and precious clues to an understanding of this development. And specifically, let us add, to an understanding of the present Stalinist state, the nature of which has caused so much continuing controversy in all political circles.

What is emphatically underlined by Marx, Trotsky and Lenin (more by the first two than by Lenin, but only because of the different aspects of the subject they cover) is the peculiarity of Russia’s position and of her course of development. In 1926, Stalin, in defending the theory of “socialism in a single country,” made the utterly absurd assertion that Marx and Engels could not have known of the law of unevenness of historical development. As Marx’s letter shows so clearly, he was more than sufficiently aware of the existence of this law and of its operation, and it is the very essence of this feature of historical evolution that he emphasizes in his reply to Zasulich.

The particular contemporary interest of Marx’s comment on what is singular in Russia’s evolution lies in its insistence on excluding Russia from the “historical fatality” of the evolution of the Western European countries – although, be it noted, that even for the latter countries Marx surrounds the phrase with somewhat sardonic quotation marks. This clue to an understanding of Russia is at the same time essential to an understanding of the Marxian theory of historical development.

It is simply a vulgarization of Marxism – not to say outright ignorance of it – to hold that every country must at one time or another pass through the same stages of social development, spending more or less the same periods of time in each. On the basis of this vulgarization, the Mensheviks broke their necks in the Russian Revolution, for their view boiled down to the dogma that semi-feudal Czarist Russia must first pass through a prolonged period of capitalist development before it matured for the socialist assault of the proletariat. On the same grounds, social-reformist theoreticians obdurately denied the proletarian character of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The advanced countries hold up to the backward countries a mirror of their own future, they mumbled after Marx. But they did not understand that this held true “in general” and only with “all other things being equal.”

It is evident – and not only from his letter to Zasulich – that Marx held firmly to the view that some countries, given special conditions in their historical development, or, as he wrote to Zasulich, “thanks to a unique combination of circumstance,” may leap over stages which other countries, under other conditions, were obliged to labor through; or that some countries can pass at terrific speed through stages in which other countries stagnate or advance only imperceptibly.

A Concept of History

To this view, Marx of course linked inseparably his not less fundamental conception that there is an historical line of development, and that all countries tend to proceed along this line; that there is, as Engels put it, a “logical order” in history. But to substitute this vitally important generalization for the necessity of a concrete analysis of each country at each stage of its development does violence to historical science, to the sum and substance of Marxism itself.

Marxist science bases itself on the fact that the specific peculiarities of each country are not “merely supplementary” to those of its characteristics that it has in common with all others, but rather “are a unique combination of the basic features of the world process.” These specific peculiarities do not make it possible for any country to separate itself hermetically from the world in which it lives or from the main movement of historical development. But they do make possible leaping-over stages; they do make possible historical reversions; they do make possible breaks in the main line of development, combined formations, and even unprecedented (that is, exception, mongrel) social phenomena not provided for in historical forecasts but produced by historical side-leaps of greater or lesser duration and durability.

It was not the realization of these fundamentals of Marxism that distinguished Trotsky from the other Russian Marxists, for Lenin was equally aware that Marxism is not a “supra-historical doctrine.” It was Trotsky’s successful application of these fundamentals to the concrete analysis of the social forces under Czarism that produced the bold and clairvoyant theory of the permanent revolution, so strikingly confirmed in 1917.

In the extremely interesting chapter from his early work which we reproduce is to be found a forceful parallel between the roles of Czarist bureaucratism and Stalinist bureaucratism – a parallel, not more – which throws much light on an appraisal of the latter. Keeping in mind the difference in historical levels, it is nevertheless notable that in both cases an absolutist bureaucracy (Stalin’s of course, is truly totalitarian in comparison either with Peter’s, Katherine’s or Nikolai’s), monopolizing the positions of power and all privilege, utterly brutal, barbaric and reactionary in its methods, found it necessary, in the interests of self-preservation and self-aggrandizement, to develop enormously the productive forces, at least up to a certain point, by an “unbroken chain of heroic efforts.”

From the similarities between the two autocracies, the incautious reader may draw unwarranted conclusions. Czarism kept the capitalist class away from control of the state power which was reserved, by and large, for the bureaucracy; yet it developed capitalist society and strengthened the social power of the bourgeoisie. Reasoning analogically, Stalinist bureaucracy monopolizes the state power and keeps the proletariat at arm’s length politically; yet it develops and protects state property and thus strengthens the social power of the proletariat.

Bourgeois and Proletarian Rule

The conclusion is based on rationalism, and not even of a high quality. The social rule of the bourgeoisie may be preserved and even expanded without political power being in its hands. That has been demonstrated a hundred times in capitalist society and is not hard to understand. The regime that maintains or strengthens private property, by that very token maintains and strengthens the social rule of the bourgeoisie in whose very concrete hands this very concrete private property, and its not inconsiderable fruits, are always to be found.

The social rule of the proletariat is different not merely because it is a different class in power, but because the nature of its rule is fundamentally different in type, in quality, from that of all preceding ruling classes. The proletariat owns social property through the state, in the form of state property, established by the expropriation of the bourgeoisie. That is the only way it can own it. Its social power, its social rule, can therefore be maintained only if it “owns” the state, that is, only if it has decisive political power. Without it, the proletariat is once more the exploited and oppressed class in society.

Failure to understand this qualitative difference between the social rule of the proletariat and that of all preceding classes (for all of the others were private-property-owning classes), is what renders untenable the point of view of those who hold that Russia today is a workers’ state of one kind or another. It is this failure that also renders incomprehensible the fact that while state property, under the rule of the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia, has been enormously expanded and strengthened, above all at the expense of bourgeois private property, the social and economic position, the social power, of the working class has deteriorated at a catastrophic rate; whereas; the strengthening of private property, be it under the rule of the first Bonapartist bureaucracy in France, the Czarist bureaucracy in Russia, or the Prussian bureaucracy in Germany, resulted in the consolidation of the economic and social position, the social power, of the bourgeoisie.

The Character of Stalinism

In Russia, it is the social rule of the collectivist bureaucracy that has been consolidated. The causes of the rise of this unique new class, the nature of its rule, are dealt with elsewhere in this issue. It is enough for the moment to point here to its earliest origins, as reflected in the disturbed observations by Lenin at the Eleventh Party Congress.

It is of course idle to speculate on how Lenin would characterize the present-day Stalinist bureaucracy. His remarks would in any case not be very complimentary. What is important is the fact that as early as 1922 (in fact, even earlier) Lenin displayed growing concern over the burgeoning bureaucracy and over the machine (that is, the state apparatus) which was moving in “God knows what direction,” except the one toward which the driver was steering it. It is not at all exaggerated to say that the last two cruelly afflicted years of his life were devoted almost wholly to stemming the rising tide of bureaucratism. All his efforts, detailed in many of the writings of Trotsky, were aimed with increasing persistency at Stalin, whose qualities suited him for the role of symbol and embodiment of the bureaucratic counter-revolution to come. Death cut short his efforts. The unequal struggle was continued by Trotsky and the Opposition.

Noteworthy, too, are Lenin’s remarks on the rôle of “state capitalism” in Russia, a subject on which no little confusion has been created. Lenin calls special attention to the fact that what he proposed to establish under the name of “state capitalism” was not at all what had always been understood by the term in the Marxian movement before. He was entirely correct in making this radical distinction, which was so necessary that Trotsky at the time was reluctant to speak of the “concessions” and the “mixed enterprises” as state capitalism in any sense, precisely because of the confusion it might cause.

Important to us contemporarily is the fact that in spite of Lenin’s hopes and expectations, this unique form of “state capitalism” never acquired any substantial significance in Soviet economy, either during or after his time. Developments took an entirely different turn. Petty, atomized agriculture was lumped together into huge collectivized farms by the most brutal and reactionary methods; at the same time, and with the same methods, the Stalinist bureaucracy wiped out all remnants of “state capitalism,” and vastly extended and strengthened state property, collectivized property. Russia did not take the road back to private property and capitalism; it did not move ahead along the road to truly socialized property and socialism. Due to a “unique combination of circumstances,” it branched off the main historical line and produced a reactionary monstrosity, the Stalinist state, bureaucratic collectivism.

What its place is in history, what it means for the future of other states, how durable it is – these questions are by no means simple to answer. It is the task of the Marxists to probe them to the bottom, and provide in reply more effective means of attaining our unaltered goal.

The Marx-Zasulich Correspondence
by Karl Marx & Vera Zasulich

Social Development of Russia
by Leon Trotsky

Lenin at the Eleventh Congress
by N. Lenin

Shachtman button
Max Shachtman
Marx button
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 12 January 2015