Was the Russian Revolution a Marxist revolution?

From Eric Rahim in Glasgow, Sept 8, 2010:

The background to the writing of this article is as follows. I was asked by the editor of the Left, Urdu language journal Awami Jamhori Forum if I would comment on a number of questions which were currently subject of discussion in Pakistani Marxist and left circles. I agreed. The first question asked provides the title of this article. ER.


Was the Russian Revolution a Marxist revolution?

Eric Rahim

The materialist method: a hypothesis for understanding social change

Before you can answer this question, you have to decide what you mean by ‘a Marxist revolution’. And to do that you need to understand the main ideas of the ‘materialist conception of history’. That is the case because the materialist conception is a hypothesis for understanding historical development which involves changes in modes of production (socio-economic systems, e.g. feudalism, capitalism); and change from one mode of production to another involves, in turn, a revolution (peaceful or violent). For this reason much of the following discussion is about Marx’s hypothesis (which he called ‘my materialist method’) of social change or development which involves both evolution (gradual change generated within society) and revolution.

In this hypothesis changes take place in society through internal forces. This means that the human society is conceptualised in organic terms. A child grows into an adult because it is an organism which has internal powers of generation; it is more than a mass of atoms because the atoms of which it is made are organically related to each other. A machine is not an organism, it can be changed only by an external agency or an outside force. It has no powers of self-generation of its own. Marx’s conception of the communist society of the future rests on this view – human beings are social in nature, man is socialised man; we depend upon each other as the organs of an organism do. An individual organ is no use in isolation from the total organism. The individual achieves self-realisation only as member of a society.

Thus, development takes place organically, it is a gradual, cumulative process, small changes accumulating over time. One stage of development prepares the ground for the next stage; that is, the latter stage grows out of the former stage. The result of these quantitative changes (that take place within the existing mode of production) that accumulate over time is that they lead to a qualitative change – you move from one mode of production to the next. This involves a break in the gradual process – a revolution.

To take an example: In Europe, the bourgeois mode of production developed over a long period within the structure of feudalism. The growth of capitalist production and the dissolution of feudalism proceeded simultaneously. The growth of capitalist development eventually reached a stage when feudal institutions (e.g. serfdom) were unable to accommodate the forces of capitalist development. (The bourgeois mode of production requires a free labour market, whereas under feudalism the serf is tied to the land on which he works.) The bourgeoisie wanted share in political power so that these institutions could be altered, and the state power could be used to facilitate the development of capitalism  This is how Marx analysed the English revolutions of the 17th century and the French revolutions of 1789 and 1830. Changes within a mode of production result from changes in material conditions of production; and at the same time struggle between the old, dominant class and the new emerging class becomes intense. The change in the mode of production, from the old to the new, is effected through class struggle. I will give an illustration of this process.

Marx spent something like twenty years of his life working on his Das Kapital (Capital). In this he worked out a theory or model of the 19th century capitalism trying to that will show theoretically that the development of capitalism will lead to socialism. So we can legitimately say that in Capital he attempted to provide a model of revolution (change from one to another, more advanced mode of production). It shows how capitalism prepares the ground for socialism or how a socialist society grows out of capitalism. I summarise the leading points that are relevant to the present discussion.

  1. It has been the historic function of capitalism to raise the productive capacity of human society. This it has done by applying a rational, scientific approach to production. It may or may not have raised the standard of living of the mass of the people, and it is certainly an exploitative system, but it has raised society’s capacity to produce an abundance of goods. This means that a necessary condition for socialism is satisfied because you cannot establish socialism in a poor country. People will continue to fight over scarce goods.
  2. Capitalist production over time necessarily results in large-scale production (large enterprises, large factories, etc.) This creates the basis for social control of production. You cannot establish socialism in a society of peasant producers; social production is too fragmented for it to be socially controlled.
  3. The development of large-scale production is inevitably associated with the development of the proletariat, which, at the stage of advanced development of capitalism, is the largest social class. Large-scale production means concentration of large numbers of workers in factories. When concentrated in large numbers, workers can organise themselves and through collective action develop their class consciousness.
  4. For a socio-economic system to fail (to be superseded by another), it must have developed internal contradictions that it is unable to resolve; the ruling class must be unable to adapt to changes that are required for social progress. In other words, this mode of production must have become moribund so that it is quite incapable of delivering progress. In the case of capitalism, it must have come to the point where it is unable to resolve the economic crises from which it periodically suffers.

The conclusion is that the revolution comes when all the material conditions for the success of the new order have been fulfilled. I may even go as far as to say that the revolution comes to put the final seal on the economic and social changes that have already taken place.

This is broadly speaking the hypothesis. However, we should take note of the fact that a hypothesis such as this can only deal with what we might call internal factors, such as those enumerated above. In actual life a revolution may fail for external reasons. Natural catastrophes are an obvious example of external factors. But more relevant to our present discussion is the intervention of other capitalist countries which may thwart a revolution even when the internal conditions for its success are satisfied. Thus, at the time Marx was writing, a revolution in a country like Belgium would have been thwarted by the intervention of England and France. That is, at the time Marx was writing a revolution to be successful had to be a Europe-wide revolution.  Thus, what the model outlined above is telling us is not that the fulfilment of the conditions listed above would guarantee the success of the revolution; what it is saying is that these are the necessary conditions, but you have to consider the external circumstances also.

Objective versus subjective factors

So far I have said nothing about the party, individual leadership, etc., that is, about the role of the conscious human agency. The hypothesis has been stated entirely in terms of objective factors, to the complete neglect of the subjective factor. Since revolutions (and other social changes) are made by human beings, you may well ask, what about the role of the party, the quality of leadership, etc (i.e. the subjective factor)?

Let me explain. Historical development (evolution) takes place through the actions of human beings, but not according to their intentions. For example, capitalist development takes place through the actions or plans of individual capitalists or entrepreneurs, say, with respect to their policies regarding investment, innovations, etc., but the development of capitalism (in one country or the world) is not planned by them; it is not result of  their individual plans or intentions. If that were the case there would be no business failures, no economic crises. Capitalist development takes place through the behaviour of capitalists and entrepreneurs, but this behaviour is determined by the way that the capitalist system works, not according to their subjective intensions and motivations. So, when Marx theoretically investigates the ‘laws of motion of capitalism’, he is studying an objective phenomenon (like a natural phenomenon), not the subjective, psychological propensities of individual capitalists.

Does this mean that laws of motion of human society are like the laws of astronomy on which humans have no control?; that men are like puppets obeying some cosmic, natural law?  Marx would have thought such an interpretation utter nonsense. Thus, the question is – What is the role that Marx assigns to the conscious human agency, such as the party, leadership, etc? We recall Marx’s famous statement: until now philosophers have only tried to understand the world, the point however is to change it. I recall also another of Marx’s most insightful statements according to which we, human beings, make our own history, but not in circumstances chosen by us. The circumstances – objective conditions –  are the material conditions (and ideas and ideologies, formed by both the material conditions of the present day and the past) created by our ancestors that we have inherited. These conditions place limits on what we can and what we cannot do. It is for us to understand these limits and design our actions accordingly. If we go beyond those limits, we will fail in our purposes; we will not be able to act on our principles. What Marx is saying is this: what the material conditions we inherit from the past do is to create a range of possibilities (circumstances) and it is for us (the human agency) to understand what these possibilities are and act according to our best judgment. But note also that we – our understanding and our capabilities – are also the product of our material and the associated ideological conditions. Our ideas and capabilities do not descend from heaven. We are free to act on the circumstances but within all these limitations. In the end there has to be congruence between political will (the subjective agency) and the objective circumstances. Marx does not give us a formula which we can apply to find answers.

An ambiguous legacy

Marx left behind him a rather ambiguous legacy on the issue under discussion. He was totally opposed to conspiracies, coups, putsches and terrorist acts that are aimed at achieving political power. For example, in 1850, the Communist League was split between the Marx-Engels faction and another group that advocated insurrection (in Germany, of course). At this time, Marx wrote:

‘While we tell the workers: ‘You have to endure and go through 15, 20, 50 years of civil war in order to change the circumstances, in order to make yourselves fit for power’ – instead of that you (the other faction that favoured insurrections) say: ‘We must come to power immediately, or otherwise we may just as well go to sleep’. … I have always opposed the ephemeral notions of the proletariat. We devote ourselves to a party which is precisely far from achieving power. Would the proletariat have achieved power, then it would have enacted not proletarian, but petty-bourgeois legislation. Our party can achieve power only if and when conditions permit it to realise its own views. Louis Blanc serves as the best example of what can be achieved when one attains power prematurely.’

I can quote numerous passages from Marx’s writings and letters where he condemns insurrections and coups to achieve political power. (Even if you did achieve political power through a coup, you will not be able to implement socialist policies.) Marx wished to emphasise that his socialism was quite different from that of other, utopian or conspiratorial, varieties. His socialism was based on a deep understanding of social and historical processes. It was the duty of communists to spread this understanding among the working classes. And the point of this understanding was that the proletariat should be able to undertake political activity that would facilitate the realisation of revolution when the circumstances make this realisation unavoidable.

While he was steadfastly opposing premature attempts at revolutions, he was at the same time always (almost always) talking of revolution, as if it was almost around the corner. The next economic crisis in Europe will bring the upheaval, he kept saying. He certainly thought that development in England had reached a stage that capitalism was undergoing significant internal changes. Always a revolutionary optimist (or an over-optimist), in 1858 he wrote to Ferdinand Lassalle: ‘All in all, the present period is pleasant. History is evidently bracing itself to take again a new start, and the signs of decomposition everywhere are delightful for every mind not bent upon the conservation of things as they are.’  In 1877, after an initial defeat suffered by Russia in its war with Turkey, he wrote to a friend that Russia had long been standing s ‘on the threshold of an upheaval. The gallant Turks have hastened the explosion by years with the thrashing they have inflicted not merely on the Russian army and the Russian finances, but on the persons of the dynasty… This time the revolution begins in the East.’ At one point in the mid-1850s, writing in New York Daily Tribune he even contemplated the possibility of a revolution in China, which would then impact on Europe.

His followers could pick and choose as they liked! We Marxists have to use our own heads. He said himself – ‘Take nothing on authority!’

The Russian Revolution

Now let us come to the Russian revolution. I construct a certain scenario (I think, not quite unrealistic) to make my point.

Perhaps the first thing to be said is that Russia was one of most backward European countries in the 19th century. For example, serfdom was abolished only in 1861. Right from the beginning of the 20th century, its state structure was collapsing. It 1905, the country suffered an ignominious defeat in war with Japan, the first time a European power was humiliated by an Asian country. In the same year, it had what is referred to as the 1905 revolution when there was a sailors mutiny on the Battleship Potemkin, and hundreds of peaceful demonstrators Petrograd were killed by the army. The Tsar promised a constitution, but soon went back on his promise. In 1914, the country entered the war against Germany (the First World War); its army was ill-equipped and poorly fed and it suffered casualties in hundreds of thousands. In February 1917 there was a spontaneous revolution. There were strikes in Petrograd and striking workers’ demonstrations were joined by hungry and deserting soldiers. Petrograd workers organised themselves into a soviet. The leaders of the army confronted the Tsar and told him to abdicate. He obliged but wanted his brother to take his place. The brother soon found out that there was no support for the monarchy. That was the end of the Ramonov dynasty. A provisional government was formed under Prince Lvov and elections and a constituent assembly were promised. At the same time there was a famine in the country. Workers’ demonstrations continued and these were increasingly joined by deserting soldiers. Defeats on the front continued, but the provisional government kept Russia in the war. Petrograd workers’ soviet by this time had become so powerful that it was successfully competing with the government for power. Lvov was replaced by Alexander Kerensky. He also decided to keep Russia in the war while defeats and desertions continued. The commander-in-chief Kornilov attempted to overthrow the provisional government, but his attempted coup was defeated – only with the support of the Petrograd soviet. In July there was a mutiny in the Petrograd garrison.

To repeat: I say all this to point out that in 1917 the Russian state structure was crumbling. As Trotsky put it, state power was lying on the pavement. The only question was, who will pick it up. Now we may ask:What were the options available to the Bolsheviks? Collaborate with the Provisional government (which was refusing to come out of the war) and hold elections? In the chaos that was developing in the country – as a result of famine and large numbers of soldiers deserting the army – would the provisional government, supported by the Bolsheviks, last? What would elections achieve in this situation? Would the Petrograd workers and starving soldiers sit quietly and wait for the results of the elections? I have no expert knowledge of Russian history, but on the basis of what little I know, I speculate that the objective situation prevailing in Russian at this time demanded a dictatorship. If it were not a Bolshevik dictatorship, it would have been a military one. A general more competent than Kornilov would probably have taken over and tried to restore order. In this situation, should the Bolshevik have said: ‘As good Marxists we must wait until capitalism in Russia has fully developed and conditions for a socialist revolution have been met?’ A military government – if it had come to power instead – would probably have rounded up all the Bolsheviks and sent them to Siberia or to a firing squad.

I would say the Russian revolution of October 1917 was not a Marxist revolution. It was a communist revolution that took place in conditions (both national and international) that were wholly inappropriate to achieving socialism. I also think that only a Marxist analysis can give us an understanding of what happened after the revolution.

15 July 2010.

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4 Responses

  1. The relevant section on the Russian Revolution, which is the title of the essay, is rounded off in two paragraphs at the end. What is the difference between a “Marxist revolution” and a “communist revolution”? Overall, this analysis leaves much to be desired.

  2. A communist revolution is a revolution carried out in the name of the Communist Party or by the Communist party which draws its inspiration from the teachings of Marx. It is aimed at establishing dictatorship of the proletariat (may be only in name) and aims to establish socialism which means, above all, bringing the means of production of society under the party’s or government’s control. In other words, it does away with capitalist relations of production.

    A Marxist revolution (as understood by me) would be a revolution which follows from the breakdown (through its own internal contradictions) of the capitalist system; when the capitalist system has exhausted its potential for further social progress. It is revolution which comes after all the necessary conditions for the success of socialism have been fulfilled.

    I spent more time on ‘what is a Marxist revolution’ because I thought what was needed was to understand what Marxism is about. I did not intend to give a lesson in Russian history.

    Perhaps others better qualified than myself will attempt to answer the question posed in the title.

    The Russian revolution did not follow this path. It came in a backward country (industrially speaking) when the necessary conditions for its success had not been fulfilled. Hence the enormous difficulties (including the absence of a developed socialist country that could help it) that the Bolsheviks had to face.

    Eric Rahim

  3. Revolution is the change that is brought about by struggle of people, who have revolutionary ideas. In addition to ideas and beliefs we have to have a cadre /party that is ready for the struggle . The preparation involves educating the cadre about the need for the revolution and train and organise for the change . Proper critique and education of the cadres is necessary for this preparation. Objective conditions will differ in every society. Hence the need to avoid dogma and free and open discussion. There is an inherent flaw in the in the understanding of the contradictions of the capitalist system and the wishful idea that it will fall by itself. That is more akin to saying God’s will as propagated by the religious obscurantist. Capitalism and fascism always perpetuate themselves. Even when there is a temporary setback as in US today, the equally powerful forces of reaction move in, like the Army rule in Pakistan. You have to avoid dogma because objective conditions differ in every country and culture e.g the hold of the caste system in India and Pakistan, the gender bias and the perpetuation of reaction in the name of religion .

  4. […] Russia’s revolution in 1917 broke some of the rules, as it jumped from fiefdom over capitalism str… or some brutal semblance of it (called “War Communism.”) Lenin and his ilk claimed it was possible because the education and evolving consciousness of the masses had outstripped the development of the economy and, thus, some compromise was going to be needed, intellectually. This breaking of the rules of Marxist revolutionary progression, by the way, is a popular excuse among Leftists as to why the Soviet State failed. The superconscious/subconscious cultural and organizational groundwork necessary for socialism wasn’t laid properly, as capitalism never flourished in Russia. Thus, the USSR was doomed to fail. This is what they say, anyway. […]

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