Marx at the Millennium by Cyril Smith

2 How the "Marxists" Buried Marx, cont’d

Karl Marx and the Origins of ‘Marxism’

‘Marxism’ in France and Germany

In the 1870s, socialism revived from the defeat of the Paris Commune and the disappearance of the First International. Mass workers’ organisations began to appear in many countries, often under leaderships which tried to base their activity on what they thought were Marx’s ideas. Capital, Vol. 1, began to find a popular audience in the labour movement.

Of course, Marx and Engels welcomed such developments and worked might and main to foster them. But they carried a price. Opportunist tendencies, which sometimes accompanied the appearance of parliamentary representatives of such groups and parties, were bound up with a vulgarisation of the theory of socialism.

Marx’s relations with his French ‘followers’ are notorious. Everyone knows that, when he denied he was a ‘Marxist’, he said it in French and meant it. The remark was mainly directed against his future son-in-law Paul Lafargue (1842-1911) and some of his friends. Lafargue worked closely with Marx and Engels in building the French Party. But, while he fervently supported Marx’s basic philosophical ideas, he imagined they had something to do with what he called ‘economic materialism’.

Lafargue’s political work, in the course of which he made great sacrifices, unfortunately reflected his theory. In the early 1870s, Lafargue tried surreptitiously to promote some kind of reconciliation between Marx and Blanqui. Later, in 1888, Engels had great difficulty prising him away from the idea of a rapprochement between the socialists and the demagogic proto-fascist General Boulanger.

Marx and Engels themselves were particularly concerned with the German Party, where similar tendencies appeared in the 1870s. The problems here were bound up with the division of the labour movement between the General German Workers’ Union, founded by Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-1864) in 1863, and the Social Democratic Workers’ Party. The latter, formed in 1869 at Eisenach by Wilhelm Liebknecht (1826-1900) and August Bebel (1840-1913), was a section of the International and was generally associated with Marx and Engels.

In 1875, without telling Marx and Engels and even without informing Bebel, w ho was in prison, Liebknecht set up a unification of the two groups, giving fundamental concessions of principle to the Lassalleans. The unification Congress at Gotha set up the German Social Democratic Party and agreed a programme which embodied nearly of the watchwords of Lassalleanism.

Marx’s denunciation of this document, one of his most important theoretical statements, was suppressed by the leaders of the new organisation. In 1891, Engels had still to fight Kautsky to get the fifteen-year-old Critique of the Gotha Programme published in Neue Zeit. He only succeeded after agreeing to the deletion of some of Marx’s more vigorous invective. Liebknecht’s Vorwarts - which Engels knew would never publish the document- then published a reply to the dead Marx, issued by the Party’s parliamentary group.

Until the end of his life, Marx remained a bitter critic of the opportunism of the German leaders, threatening from time to time to break with them publicly. In 1879, in their so-called ‘Circular Letter’, Marx and Engels mercilessly lashed the new type of Marxist’ leadership they saw emerging. The effect of their criticism was precisely nil. After Marx’s death, the German leaders’ treatment of the ageing Engels was even worse. They printed his work only with opportunist omissions and amendments, and, while freely making use of his prestigious name, they effectively cut him off from the International.

Marx and the Russians

Russia has, inevitably, loomed large in this account of the development of Marxism, so it is important to clarify the relationship of Marx himself to the origins of ‘Marxism’ in that country. As is well known, the hostility of Marx and Engels to Russia in their earlier political work was so deep that it sometimes approached anti-Slav racism. Tsarism was seen as inspiring the most reactionary forces in Europe. (For example, Marx was convinced that Lord Palmerston was an agent of the Tsar.) Marx detested those, like A. I. Herzen (1812-1870) and M. A. Bakunin (1814-1876), who argued that there was a specific Russian national road to socialism, arising from some special qualities of the ‘Russian spirit’.

When socialist ideas developed in Russia, they had nothing to do with Marx. The devoted narodniki were a small group of intellectuals who set themselves the task of ‘going to the people’ (narod). They aimed to bring about the destruction of the Tsarist autocracy and the liberation of the oppressed peasant masses. If they succeeded, they believed, Russia would never have to pass through the hell of capitalist development. To gain their goal, some of them engaged in heroic acts of violence against leading figures of the autocratic state. They hoped to destroy Tsarism by the use of the bomb and the revolver.

Those, on the contrary, who thought that the development of Russian capitalism was inevitable, called themselves ‘Marxists’. Russia would be forced along a similar path to that followed by countries of Western Europe, they believed. A proletarian movement would develop in the towns and the Russian bourgeoisie would take the power in society. Organising the workers, the Marxists would be ready at some later stage to lead a socialist revolution.

But when would that be, and what would they do in the meantime? Most of the subsequent conflicts within the Russian Marxist movement were over how the struggle for socialism would relate to the democratic movement against Tsarism In the first edition of Capital, in 1867, the following footnote appeared:

If, on the European continent, influences of capitalist production which destroy the human species ... were to continue to develop hand in hand with competition in the sizes of national armies, state security issues ... etc, then rejuvenation of Europe may become possible with the use of a whip and through forced mixture with the Kalmyks, as Herzen ... has so emphatically foretold. (This gentleman with an ornate style of writing - to remark in passing - has discovered ‘Russian’ communism not inside Russia but instead in the work of Haxthausen, a councillor of the Prussian government.)

But, unlike some of his followers, Marx was always prepared to reconsider his views in the light of new developments. As early as 11 January 1860, he had written, in a letter to Engels, about the movement among the lesser Russian nobility concluding: ‘thus the "social" movement has begun in West and East.’

A far bigger shift in his thinking was on the way. On 12 October 1868, he wrote to Kugelmann:

A few days ago a Petersburg publisher surprised me with the news that a Russian translation of Das Kapital is now being printed. It is an irony of fate that the Russians whom I have fought for twenty-five years, not only in German, but in French and English, have always been my ‘patrons’.

(Actually, Marx was a little too optimistic. The first translation of his book into any other language was certainly in preparation, but it did not begin to appear until March 1872, continuing in instalments until 1875.)

In 1869-70, he devoted a lot of his time to teaching himself Russian, and was soon reading Flerovsky’s book on the condition of the Russian peasantry. On 12 February 1870 he wrote to Engels about it: From his book it follows that the present conditions in Russia are no longer tenable, that the emancipation of the serfs, of course, only hastened the process of disintegration and that a frightful social revolution is now imminent.

In March, Marx could tell Engels that the colony of exiled Russian revolutionaries in Geneva had formed themselves into a section of the International, and that- to his amazement- they had asked him to be their representative on the General Council. By 1871 he was studying some of the work of Chernyshevsky on the obshchina, the Russian peasant commune. Ten years on, he could count 200 books in Russian on his shelves.

Following the defeat of the Paris Commune, Marx worked on the French translation of Capital, and on preparing the second German edition. Important changes from the first edition were introduced, and several of them concern Russia. The footnote about Herzen, quoted above, was deleted. The famous ‘Afterword’ to the second German edition includes a tribute to Chernyshevsky’s ‘masterly’ work on J. S. Mill. Marx goes on to refer to the Russian translation of his book, and writes at length about the helpful comments of two Russian professors, N. Sieber and I. I. Kaufman.

The German editions explain how, during the ‘primitive’ accumulation of capital, the expropriation of the peasants in different countries ‘runs through its different phases in different orders of succession, and at different periods’. In the French edition, however, Marx rewrote this paragraph to say that this ‘expropriation ... has been accomplished in a final form only in England . . . but all the other countries of Western Europe are going through the same movement’. This limitation of the analysis in Capital to Western Europe was quite deliberate.

In 1877 war broke out between Turkey and Russia. Marx and Engels were very excited at the possibility that a defeat of the Tsar’s forces would open the way for revolutionary struggles to break out. Marx writes to Sorge:

This crisis is a new turning point for the history of Europe. Russia - I have studied the situation in this country on the basis of official and non official sources in the Russian language - has for a long period been on the brink of revolution.... The revolution this time starts in the East, that same East which we have so far regarded as the invincible support for the reserve of counter-revolution.

The victory of Russia over the Turks the following March came as a grave disappointment

Marx was, of course, particularly concerned with the issue of landownership in Russia and the destiny of the communally owned peasant land, the obshchina, and this was also the centre of the disputes going on among the Russian socialists

In 1877 an individual called Zhukovsky had attacked Marx in a St Petersburg journal, Vestnik Europia (European Messenger), denouncing in particular that footnote reference to Herzen in the first edition of Capital, quoted on page 53. Sieber sprang to Marx’s defence in the joumal Otechestvenniye Zapiski (‘Notes of the Fatherland’), and a comment also appeared by the editor, the narodnik Mikhailovsloy (1842-1404). Marx drafted a reply to this latter contribution, although it seems never to have been sent.

Drawing attention to the changes he had made in the second edition of Capital, Marx responded sharply

My critic ... absolutely insists on transforming my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into a historico-philosophical theory of the general course fatally imposed on all peoples, whatever the historical circumstances in which they find themselves placed, in order to arrive at this economic formation which assures the greatest expansion of the productive forces of social labour . . . But success will never come with the master-key of a general historico-philosophical theory, whose supreme virtue consists in being supra-historical.

Marx and the ‘Terrorists’

The illegal populist organisation Zemlya i Volya (Land and Freedom) had been formed in 1873. Largely consisting of intellectuals, its theoretical outlook was in no sense homogeneous. In 1879 it split and two new organisations emerged. The larger, Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will), was responsible for renewed terrorist activity, although it did not avoid work among both the urban and rural masses.

Opposing them, Russian exiles in Switzerland formed Cherny Peredel (Black Repartition). The ‘peredeltsy’ doubted that the obshchina had a future, or could form the basis for Russian socialism. Instead of individual attacks on the personnel of Tsarism, they called for more work among the masses in both town and country. It was this latter r/roup, led by the young revolutionary G. Plekhanov, which was to transform itself in 1882 into the germ of Russian ‘Marxism’. However, it is here that myth and reality part company: contrary to the ‘orthodox’ account, Marx’s sympathies were entirely with the ‘terrorists’! In February 1880, Lev Hartmann (1850-1913), who had escaped from Russia following an unsuccessful attempt to blow up the Tsar’s train, came to London. To the surprise of Hyndman, for one, Marx received the Russian ‘terrorist’ warmly and gave him every possible assistance.

In November, 1880 Marx received a letter from the Executive Committee of Narodskaya Volya, together with its Programme. The letter warmly praised Capital - ‘it has become the daily reading of educated people’ - and announced that Hartmann had been given the task of maintaining contact with Marx: ‘We consider ourselves fortunate to have this chance of expressing to you, most esteemed citizen, the feelings of deep respect of the entire Russian social-revolutionary patty.’

After studying these documents, Marx ceased referring to their authors as ‘the terrorist party’.

And what of the other group, the one from which Russian Marxism sprang? In a letter to Sorge in November 1880, Marx writes of them:

These persons - most (not all of them) - who left Russia voluntarily, constitute the so-called party of propaganda as opposed to the terrorists who risk their lives. (In order to carry on propaganda in Russia - they move to Geneva! What a quid pro quo!) These gentlemen are against all political-revolutionary action. Russia is to make a somersault into the anarchist-communist-atheist millennium! Meanwhile they are preparing for this leap with the most tedious doctrinairism, whose so-called principles are being hawked about the street ever since the late Bakunin.

It appears, that Marx was not clear about the political character of the Geneva group, but he certainly didn’t like them.

In March 1881, narodism achieved its greatest success, when Tsar Alexander II was blown to pieces. Marx and Engels were delighted. When the conspirators were tried and sentenced to death, Marx was full of praise for their conduct before the court. Writing to his daughter Jenny, he declared that the defendants were ‘sterling people through and through ... whose modus operandi is a specifically Russian and historically inevitable method about which there is no more need to moralise - for or against - than about the earthquake in Chios’.

In stark contrast, he repeated to his daughter his opinions on Plekhanov’s ‘Black Repartition’ group. (He was still unclear just who they were.)

The Genevans have in fact long been trying to persuade Europe that it is really they who direct the movement in Russia; now when this lie, spread by themselves, is seized upon by Bismark & Co., and becomes dangerous to them, they declare the opposite and vainly attempt to convince the world of their innocence. Actually, they are mere doctrinaires, confused anarchist socialists, and their influence on the Russian theatre of war is zero.

In the same letter, by the way, Marx also gives his highly uncomplimentary opinions of Kautsky, then in London: ‘He is a mediocrity, with a small-minded outlook ... he belongs by nature to the tribe of philistines.’ Clearly, Karl Marx did not just disagree with the ‘Marxists’ - he couldn’t stand them!

State and Commune

Vera Zasulich (1849-1919) was renowned as a revolutionary, honoured by socialists both for her devotion to the Revolution and her saintly character. In 1878 she had shot and wounded the St Petersburg police prefect, because he had been responsible for the flogging of a narod-ist prisoner. Zasulich was acquitted by the jury in a celebrated trial. In February 1881 she sent Marx a famous letter. It asked for the author of Capital to give his opinion on the major issue dividing Russian socialists: the future of the peasant commune.

Either the rural commune, freed of exorbitant tax demands, payment to the nobility and arbitrary administration, is capable of developing in a socialist direction, that is, gradual}y organising its production and distribution on a collectivist basis. In this case the revolutionary socialist must devote all his energies to the liberation and development of the commune.

If however, the commune is destined to perish, all that remains for the socialist, as such, is more or less unfounded calculations as to how many decades it will take for the peasant’s land to pass into the hands of the bourgeoisie, and how many centuries it will take for capitalism in Russia to reach something like the level of development already attained in Western Europe. Their task will then be to conduct propaganda solely among the urban workers, while these workers will be continually drowned in the peasant mass which, following the dissolution of the commune, will be thrown on to the streets of the large towns in search of a wage.

Nowadays, we often hear it said that the rural commune is an archaic form condemned to perish by history, scientific socialism and, in short, everything above debate. Those who preach such a view call themselves your disciples par excellence: ‘Marxists’. Their strongest argument is often: ‘Marx said so’.

These lines read curiously, coming as they do from someone who was a close supporter of Plekhanov, the leader of these very ‘Marxists’, and who remained so for the rest of her life.

Marx made four long drafts for his reply, taking a great deal of trouble over them. And yet, after all his preparatory work, the reply Marx actually sent was, as he described it himself, a ‘short note’. He begins by apologising for this brevity, saying that he had been ill. Our knowledge of the care he had taken over the drafts makes it look as if this illness was a diplomatic one! Another remark gives us a clue about his real political motivation: ‘Some months ago, I already promised a text on the same subject to the St Petersburg Committee.’

So the cool tone of his reply is explained by his preference for Narodnaya Volya over the group of Zasulich and Plekhanov.

Marx quotes from his cautious paragraph in the French edition of Capital, quoted on page 54, limiting the application of Capital to Western Europe. Underlining this point, Marx stresses the importance of the survival of the commune in distinguishing Russia from the Western experience:

In the Western case, then, one form of private property is transformed into another form of private property. In the case of the Russian peasants, however, their communal property, would have to be transformed into private property

Finally, Marx sums up his own position:

The analysis in Capital therefore provides no reasons either for or against the vitality of the Russian commune. But the special study I have made of it, including a search for original source material, has convinced me that the commune is the fulcrum for social regeneration in Russia. But in order that it might function as such, the harmful influences assailing it on all sides must first be eliminated, and it must then be assured the normal conditions for spontaneous development.

The following year, when Marx was really ill, overcome by the death of his wife, he received a request from Lavrov for a preface for a new Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto. The preface was eventually drafted by Engels, but it is signed jointly by the two of them and certainly expresses the views of both. It ends by discussing the prospects for the peasant commune:

Can the Russian obshchina, a form, albeit heavily eroded, of the primitive communal ownership of the land, pass directly into the higher, communist form of communal ownership? Or must it first go through the same process of dissolution which marks the West’s historical development? The only possible answer to this question at the present time is the following: If the Russian revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that the two can supplement each other, then present Russian communal land ownership can serve as a point of departure for a communist development.

A year later, Karl Marx was dead.

Several aspects of Marx’s views on Russia at the end of his life are important for this account. Note that in many places he stresses the role of the Tsarist state in the rise of capitalism and the destruction of the commune. Seeing the possibility of a Russian revolution, which would only survive in combination with the proletarian revolution in Western Europe, he emphasises the protection of the obshchina against this centralised state.

This emphasis should be connected with the lessons he drew from the Paris Commune. He thought it demonstrated the role of a decentralised form of political organisation in the destruction of the bourgeois state and the transition to communism. This must be underlined in view of Plekhanov’s later falsification of the meaning of the phrase ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.

Also relevant here are the extensive studies Marx made in his last few years of the literature which had begun to appear on primitive societies. Among other problems, these studies centre on the way that the state came into being. (Details of this work are to be found in the so-called Ethnological Notebooks.) These were the notes used by Engels as the basis for his Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.)

They are also important from another point of view. ‘Marxism’ made a great deal of the idea that history moved inexorably through a sequence of ‘stages’ of social development. This mechanical view has no basis in Marx’s work, as his later ideas on Russia and on other ‘pre-capitalist’ societies confirm. We shall deal with the Preface to The Critique of Political Economy in more detail in Chapter 3, but for the moment let us recall what Marx wrote there - in relation, let us not forget, only to the ‘prehistory of human society’, not to its ‘real, conscious, history’: ‘In broad outlines, Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production can be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic formation of society.’

Meanwhile, in exile in Geneva, Plekhanov and his friends had formed Osvobozhdeniye Truda (Emancipation of Labour), the first group of Russians to proclaim themselves followers of Marx. These, the former ‘Black Repartitionists’ (perdeltsy), modelled themselves closely on the German Social Democrats, pride of the Second International.

In 1889, Plekhanov spoke at the International Workers Socialist Congress in Paris, the first major gathering of the Second International. Now beginning to be recognised as a leading theoretician of the International, he was at pains to stress the similarity between Russian and Western development.

The old economic foundations of Russia are now undergoing a process of complete disintegration. Our village community, about which so much has been said, even in the socialist press, but which has in fact been a bulwark of Russian absolutism - this much praised community is becoming more and more an instrument of capitalist exploitation in the hands of the rich peasants, while the poor are abandoning the countryside and going to the big towns and industrial centres....

The autocratic government is intensifying this situation with all its might and thus promoting the development of capitalism in Russia. We socialists can only be satisfied at this aspect of its activity, for it is thus preparing its own downfall.’)

This speech helps to highlight the fundamental opposition between the conceptions of Karl Marx and those of the ‘Marxists’. There is no disagreement about the historical ‘facts’: capital is developing fast h1 the domains of the Tsar; the peasant commune is being eroded; peasants are moving into the towns to work in the factories. If he had lived another few years, Marx would have agreed that the decay of this peasant basis had led to the degeneration of the Narodnaya Voly-ists. On the one hand, their actions had become increasingly desperate and individualist. On the other, there had grown up that ‘legal populism’ which later showed itself in the right wing of the Social Revolutionary Party.

But what did these ‘facts’ mean for Marx in his last years? What mattered for him was that an opportunity was being lost which might make the transition to communism less painful. The upheaval in Russian society implied, he thought, the possibility of imminent revolution. Russian revolutionary socialists must redouble their efforts to prepare for this revolution, while rural communal property forms still survived, otherwise this chance would not return.

And Plekhanov? As far as he was concerned, the obshchina was ‘a bulwark of Russian absolutism’, which is now ‘an instrument of capitalist exploitation in the hands of the rich peasants’. Neither the communal nature of this social form, nor the sufferings of the peasant masses as it disappeared, entered into his theoretical calculations. The socialist revolution is safely postponed for decades. Indeed, since even the overthrow of absolutism was to be accomplished by the Russian working class, this too was a long way off, awaiting the growth of the new class.

No wonder such views were welcomed by Kautsky. It might even be said that such people were attracted to Marx as a result of a misunderstanding. They thought that, like them, he was concerned with the ‘explanation’ of historical developments with ‘interpreting the world’ in terms of ‘laws’.

They were very keen on the contrast between ‘Utopian’ and ‘Scientific’ socialism, But what they meant by ‘science’ was not what Marx meant at all. They thought science was about the explanation of objects from which the scientist was separated by a safe distance, and which were quite external to him. So for these ‘dialectical materialists’, socialism was actually a discrete mixture of Utopia and an empirical science of the ‘laws of history’. From them, a bureaucratised social democracy learned to combine May Day orations about the communist future with parliamentary skulduggery.

Marx’s ideas on Russia, as on many other topics, altered radically as he continually strove to deepen his understanding Plekhanov, stressing the conflict between ‘materialism’ and ‘the subjective method in sociology’, wanted to talk ‘scientifically’ about the world as it existed. Marx’s science started out from the ‘active side’, the need to ‘grasp the object subjectively’. For him, the point was not merely to interpret the world, but to change it.


We have seen that what we have been brought up to call ‘Marxism’ took shape only after Marx’s death. In the next two chapters, we will see how directly opposed to it were the ideas of Karl Marx. How, then, should we assess the history of those Russian Marxists who fought against the opportunism of the International, breaking with it when it showed its true colours in August 1914? Did the greatness of Lenin and Trotsky really lie in their devotion to ‘orthodoxy’?

I believe, on the contrary, that what is important for us today is rather their ability to break with dogma, even if only partially and unsystematically, in the course of revolutionary struggles. Where Plekhanov’s ‘dialectical and historical materialism’ led to a fatalist acceptance that the Russian Revolution had to follow the path of the ‘bourgeois revolutions’ of the West, they grasped the possibility of an alternative course. (The later policies of Stalin and Bukharin, for example, in China in the 1920s, may be seen as a return to those of Plekhanov in 1905 and 1917.)

Whatever the shortcomings of their theoretical work, those who struggled for Marxism-human beings, not supermen - tried to comprehend the basis for exploitation and oppression, and to organise the working people in the struggle for their liberation. The very notion that it is possible for human beings to revolutionise the way they live was taken more seriously by these people than by anyone in history.

But such a notion raises tremendous problems, problems which subsume and transcend the work of every philosopher worthy of the name that ever lived. The energy, determination and self-sacrifice of the Marxists is a vital part of the history of our time, but it will have been wasted if we cannot look at their struggles with ruthless objectivity. Those who want to honour them must accept the task of comprehending their weaknesses.

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