From 20th Century Russia (2000)  by Donald Treadgold

Chapter 2: “Marxism Comes to Russia”

The Revolutionary Movement

It was not from the peasants but from the intelligentsia that the leadership of the revolutionary movement came. There were antecedents, which might be traced as far back as to the eccentric Prince Ivan Khvorostinin, a sharp critic of his own Muscovite surroundings at the court of the First False Dmitry, about 1600, or to the writer Alexander Radishchev, who advocated emancipation of the serfs in the 1780’s, and the young veterans of the Napoleonic Wars known as "Decembrists" because they attempted an abortive coup in December 182.5, but the intelligentsia took form as a recognizable group in the 1860’s. It may be defined as the politically oriented portion of the educated class, whether its members came from the gentry or, as was true especially from the 1860’s, from the village clergy or other less-favored strata of society, who were termed raznochintsy, literally, men of mixed ranks (later in the century a few women also might be so classified).

Their leaders in the 1860’s, such as Nicholas Chernyshevsky, borrowed socialist ideas from the West and tried to relate them to the Russian setting. Pre-Marxist socialism in nineteenth-century Russia is often called ‘populism’ (narodnichestvo from narod, people), and though its proponents are sometimes wrongly regarded as having ignored industrial or craft workers, their deepest concern was apt to be the peasantry. In 1873-1874 many of the young populist intelligentsia undertook a remarkable movement of "going to the people:' taking up residence in villages to preach socialism to the peasants. The almost universal response was indifference or hostility, so that some villagers cooperated with the police when they rounded up the newcomers who brought their puzzling message-- socialism sounded like the return of serfdom, said some peasants.

Some revolutionaries concluded that the peasants were hopeless, at least for the time being, and they turned instead to terrorism, that is, political murder, as their only alternative instrument. They succeeded in killing or wounding several officials and finally, in 1881, in assassinating Alexander II himself. A few years earlier, however, George Plekhanov and a few other revolutionaries had decided that terrorism was either unjustified or self-defeating.


And so it proved, when the police managed-with widespread public approval-to arrest almost all the terrorists after the murder of the emperor. There is broad agreement among historians of varied political hues that the murder, far from benefiting the people, put political reform in Russia into deep freeze for a generation or more.

Plekhanov and others then sought a more sophisticated guide to the past and a more dependable path to revolution than that given in the theoretically weak and practically ineffectual Russian socialism of their fellows-- and they found both in the teaching of Karl Marx. .

No man was ever such a failure in his lifetime and such a success afterward as Marx. That he should require substantial treatment in a work devoted to twentieth-century Russia is only part of the evidence supporting this contention. Although his principles were modified in various ways in theory and practice by his followers, probably no single individual outside the higher religions has ever preached doctrines that have had a greater impact on humanity than his. To be sure, Marx never intended to "preach a doctrine"; he believed he was merely discovering the meaning of history. When men understood that meaning, they would be able to act with an understanding and a foresight denied to all previous generations.

Marx's philosophy came to Russia not as a surprise or sudden importation, but after the Western thinkers whom he acknowledged as his predecessors had already become known in Russia in their own right. If British political economy, French Utopian socialism, and German idealist philosophy were the forerunners of Marxism in the West, so were they in Russia. Adam Smith and David Ricardo were read and discussed in the early nineteenth century; St. Simon and Fourier were popular in the Petrashevtsy circle, whose members attempted to erect a Fourieran phalanstery in the 1840’s. In the same decade differences of view about Hegel had led to the end of personal friendships within the circle of Herzen and his friends. Russians had been at least as interested in Hegel as Germans had been, as interested in St. Simon as Frenchmen. The men whose thought formed the raw material of Marx's ideas were well known to Russians before he actually put his system on paper.

The Development of Marx's Thought

Karl Marx was born in the German Rhineland in 1818, the son of a Jew who had become a Protestant. By the age of twenty he had entered the University of Berlin and joined a circle of young Hegelians there. What appealed to Marx in Hegel's thought was his conception of the universe as a single whole, in which every bit and piece was related to every other one, in contrast to the older British empiricism, which tended to look at the bits and pieces carefully and separately. Hegel saw mankind as one organism, living


and evolving, and he glorified man's reason, which would make the world itself reasonable as man came to understand the reason which resided in things. Thus for Hegelians there was no sharp division between the realms of thinking and being; or, as Hegel himself put it, "The real is the rational, and the rational is the real."

However, Hegel was not so naive as to think that gradual and smooth progress had been the law of history. He interpreted history as a series of sharp, sometimes ugly, stabs and jerks forward and backward, as the net result of which a civilization or mankind as a whole moved forward. This type of motion was conceived to resemble the rhythm of an intelligent dialogue, as Socrates had talked to his pupils, and Hegel therefore termed this motion "dialectical." A made an assertion, B denied it, C denied the denial-- or "negated the negation"-- and in so doing
stated the truth more accurately than either A or B had done. The idea of ancient Oriental civilization had been that one (the despot) is free; of classical civilization, that some (the citizens) are free; Germanic civilization affirmed that every man is free. He is, and ought to be free-- to Hegel what was desirable was also necessary, and so it remained to Marx.

So far Marx followed Hegel. Leaving Berlin, he returned home and then made his way to Paris. There he read the works of Ludwig Feuerbach, who examined Hegel's views on religion and concluded that his idealism embodied "the deceased spirit of theology." "Idealism" meant not that Hegel was addicted to high flown or impossible standards or aims, but that he believed that the fundamental stuff of reality was "idea" with a capital "I," and that external objects and institutions were important only as representing ideas-- as for example the state was seen as the embodiment of divine purpose, "the march of God on earth." Like Feuerbach, Marx could find no place for God in his philosophy. While he was pondering this obstacle, he met Friedrich Engels, who was two years younger than he. Engels was the son of a well-to-do manufacturer; he himself remained an affluent and pleasure-loving bourgeois while he fought, and helped and financed Marx to fight, the capitalist order.

In their attempt to cleanse Hegel of error, Marx and Engels found the thought of Saint-Simon and also Proudhon useful. What was most significant about society, the French thinkers contended, was the play of economic forces and social classes.
Marx's account of his solution was that he abruptly realized that Hegel's thought was standing on its head, and what was needed was simply for it to be set upright. That is, the dialectic was the correct method of analyzing reality, but it was not mind, but matter, which constituted reality. Some sympathetic critics of Marx, like G. D. H. Cole, have suggested that what Marx really meant was that not matter but the economic process underlay human history. It is certainly true that Marx's writing dealt not with natural science but with either economic history or political history interpreted as the reflection of economic developments. Engels made a few excursions into the field of science, but they were weak at best. Nevertheless. Marx and Engels called their system dialectical materialism, in order to emphasize its difference from Hegelianism, with its smuggled-in God. One may take them at their word.


By the middle 1840's Marxism was nearing the dimensions of a system. In the Communist Manifesto of 1847 Marx and Engels popularized it for the use of the Communist League, a small and unimpressive association of West European radicals. The Manifesto was a short pamphlet in which historical materialism (Marxian philosophy applied to human affairs) is expounded as a guide to and a prediction of action. The way goods are produced-- the "mode of production"-- and the structure of social classes defined in terms of how each fits into the productive process, are made the basis for all history. The classes behave in an antithetical, a dialectical manner; that is, they struggle. The battle for ownership of the means of production and for the political power which such ownership confers is incessant. Thus all history is said to be the history of class struggle between the exploiter and exploited class of the given moment. In the past there were four modes of production, the Asiatic (as found in China or India), slavery (as in Greece and Rome), feudalism (the Western Middle Ages), and capitalism (nineteenth-century England).

Near the end of the Manifesto appears the assertion that Germany is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution that is bound to be carried out under more advanced conditions of European civilization and with a much more developed proletariat than that of England or France at the time of their “bourgeois revolutions.” Russian Marxists hoped their country might benefit from similar circumstances.

Marx and Russia

Unfortunately the Manifesto, as E. H. Carr points out, was deficient in two respects which were to cause Lenin difficulty in applying Marxism to Russia. The problems of nationalism and the peasantry were passed over briefly. The proletariat was said to "have no country.” Consequently the orthodox Marxists of Russian Poland, for example, taking Marx at his word, refused to consider any plan for a Polish nation; as a result they remained insignificant in strength, while another group which called itself the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), but was openly nationalist, attracted wide support. For the same reason the intellectuals of such borderlands as Armenia, Georgia, and the Baltic states gravitated to populism more often than to Marxism. Lenin's tortuous attempts to solve the "national question," in which efforts he found Stalin useful, were for a long time fruitless if measured by the growth of Bolshevism among the national minorities of the Empire. Marx's treatment of the peasants was an even more serious problem for the Marxists in Russia. 


He noted the service of capitalism to mankind in rescuing people from the "idiocy of rural life" and lumped peasants with small shopkeepers and the like as "petty bourgeoisie." Lenin made heroic efforts to compensate for such cavalier treatment of the group which made up the overwhelming majority of the whole population of the country, but Marx was no help to him.

Of course Marx did not have Russia particularly in mind in writing the Manifesto. He did make several later comments, especially in the preface written jointly with Engels to a Russian edition of the Manifesto, which they ended with the conditional but optimistic prophecy, "If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development." Here Marx suggested an even more prodigious leap in history than the one he hoped for in Germany: from a mode of production at least partly primitive-communist, over slavery, feudalism, and capitalism to communism.

In fact the Russian Marxists paid little attention to the allusion to primitive communism and often spoke as if Russia were basically "Asiatic" or "feudal," though rapidly developing a capitalist sector in its economy. It was tidier to do so, and also less embarrassing, for their ideological adversaries, the populists, had long said that the Russian peasant commune could develop directly into rural socialism. The fact that Marx himself said the very same thing, and repeated it in a letter to a populist leader, could be forgiven only because Marx died in the same year that Russian Marxism was born.

Marx's Later Years

The Communist Manifesto predicted revolution, and revolution actually followed in a matter of weeks. In 1848 almost every great capital of Europe was shaken by turmoil, but within a year the republican or radical forces had been routed. Communism also seemed to be a lost cause, not that its “specter” to which Marx referred in the Manifesto had materialized in 1848: among the revolutionaries had appeared certain of the radical groupings which he criticized, but no “Communists” had been visible. Nevertheless for Marx, as for orthodox Marxists ever since, failure was regarded as temporary and hopes were simply deferred.

In 1853 Marx withdrew from overt political activity to spend his days in the British Museum in London reading and writing. For a decade he was occupied with a work on political economy. From Manchester Engels helped him through more than one crisis in the family finances; Marx declared wryly, “I don't suppose anyone has ever written about 'money' and suffered such a lack of it himself.”  But he managed to publish the first volume of Capital in 1867, and for the rest of his life he worked on the remaining two volumes, which were published by Engels after his death. The whole work included both a theoretical exposition of the nature of the "capitalist" economic system and a history of modern capitalism.


During Marx's later years he witnessed the formation of the First International Workingmen's Association in 1864, the war of the Paris Commune in 1871, and the consequent collapse of the International as a result of dashed hopes and government repression. In writing about the Commune, Engels hailed its “shattering of the former State power and its replacement by a new and really democratic State.” At the same time he warned against the retention of the state in any form, and traced the “superstitious reverence” for the state to the conception that the state is “the Kingdom of God on earth” in other words, to Hegel. Lenin was to expand these comments on what the proletariat ought to do with the state in his pamphlet of 1917, The State and Revolution.

In the 1870’s, in the wake of the failure of the Paris Commune, Marx became fascinated with Russia. In a preface to a Russian edition of the Manifesto written jointly with Engels, they declared, “Today Russia forms the vanguard of revolutionary action in Europe.” A Russian revolution might occur before a socialist revolution in the West, and it might even be possible for Russia to build communism on the village commune-- provided a Western revolution could then show “how it's done” (wie man's macht). Marx learned Russian and corresponded with several Russian socialists. He noted that Capital was translated into Russian before any other foreign language, in 1872, and that, like some earlier works, it sold well in Russia. He was hopeful that the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 might lead to Russian defeat and thus bring the revolution closer. In 1883 he died.

The Teachings of Marxism

According to Vilfredo Pareto, Marxism is like a bat: some see in it a mouse, others a bird. Our concern here is less with what Marx's followers made of his ideas than with which of them he himself believed to be fundamental. As a matter of fact, Marx was probably understood by posterity as well as any theorist who advocated doctrines of comparable complexity. It is a tribute to his intelligibility that even revisionist Marxists knew quite well which of his teachings they were discarding and which they were accepting. Even if they wanted a mouse, they knew they had to extract it from a bat.

Briefly and simply, Marxism begins with two basic propositions. First, matter exists and nothing else does. Second, matter changes constantly in accordance with the "laws" of the dialectic; that is, it changes by the interpenetration of opposites, through which quantitative change becomes qualitative and the antithesis of a given thesis is itself denied to form a new synthesis, and so on over and over again. The two propositions combine to form the philosophy of dialectical materialism. That aspect of it which undertakes to explain history is known as historical materialism. The body of this doctrine can be stated in Marx's own words:


In the social production of their means of existence men enter into definite, necessary relations which are independent of their will, productive relationships which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The aggregate of these productive relationships constitutes the economic structure of society, the real basis on which a juridical and political superstructure arises, and to which definite forms of social consciousness correspond. The mode of production of the material means of existence conditions the whole process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, it is their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development the material productive forces of society come into contradiction with the existing productive relationships, or what is but a legal expression for these, with the property relationships within which they had moved before. From forms of development of the productive forces these relationships are transformed into their fetters. Then an epoch of social revolution opens. With the change in the economic foundation the whole vast superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such revolutions it is necessary always to distinguish between the material revolution in the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with scientific accuracy, and the juridical, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic-- in a word, ideological forms wherein men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as we cannot judge an individual on the basis of his own opinion of himself, so such a revolutionary epoch cannot be judged from its own consciousness but on the contrary this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between social productive forces and productive relationships. A social system never perishes before all the productive forces have developed for which it is wide enough and new, higher productive relationships never come into being before the material conditions for their existence have been brought to maturity within the womb of the old society itself. Therefore, mankind always sets itself only such problems as it can solve for when we look closer we will always find that the problem itself only arises when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in process of coming into being. In broad outline, the Asiatic, the ancient, the feudal and the modern bourgeois modes of production can be indicated as progressive epochs in the economic system of society. Bourgeois productive relationships are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production--  antagonistic in the sense not of individual antagonism, but of an antagonism arising out of the conditions of the social life of individuals; but the productive forces developing within the womb of bourgeois society at the same time create the material conditions for the solution of this antagonism. With this social system, therefore. the prehistory of human society comes to a close.... ( from A Contribution to the Critique of Political Philosophy (1859))

To restate the doctrine of historical materialism, the "material productive forces" determine the "productive relationships" which are the basis of history, the social classes and the interaction between them, which has always had the character of antagonism. In other words, what is crucial to the Marxian


theory of history is the concept of class struggle. A class, in Marx's view, is a function of the mode of production; it is composed of individuals whose relationship to the productive process is similar, whatever their external or conscious differences. History is the history of class struggles, but when capitalism ends it will enter a new phase. This conviction leads Marx to term all previous history "prehistory" to distinguish it from the epoch ahead, when reason and consciousness will determine mankind's actions and society will no longer be dependent on the organization of production. Until that time ideas will be derived from the economic process, and all questions about human society can be answered, as Lenin put it, by tracing them to “who exploits whom” in a given situation; in other words, who owns the means of production and who does not. Neither in Hegel nor in Marx was there any clear distinction between the descriptive and the normative. The "is" and "ought" of history merged closely into each other. As Marx put it in his Theses on Feuerbach, "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point however is to change it." Therefore a history implied a politics; theory and practice were inseparable, and right theory and right practice were dependent one upon the other. History showed that the proletariat would win, and the self-destructive tendencies of capitalism would help bring this to pass. However, with the emergence of the “rational” to the level of the “real,” the action of individuals or groups of intellectuals could be important or decisive in hastening the ultimately inevitable denouement of "prehistory:" Then it would come about that, in Marcuse's phrase, “reason, when determined by rational social conditions, is determined by itself.” The role of human intelligence and of intellectuals was thus dearly set forth. It was the task of the scholar to forsake history as a Muse and take it up as a political and military plan of campaign.

The Politics of Marxism

Marx did not consider himself responsible for the way in which Communist political action would have to be worked out. In reference to the Paris Commune, he suggested that the proletariat would have to seize and destroy the old state machinery, substituting simpler forms (but still state machinery) of its own as long as remnants of antagonistic classes remained to be dealt with. The new "dictatorship of the proletariat" would thereupon undertake to build a new type of economic order. In his Critique of the Gotha Program (of the newborn German Marxist party), Marx distinguished between two phases through which the new order would develop, “socialism” and “communism.” Under both, man would work according to his ability: under socialism he would be remunerated according to the amount of his work, under communism according to the extent of his need.


There were a few other hints and suggestions, but no plans for organization of a Communist political party or for the state which that party would establish on the ruins of the old capitalist one. If communism was a specter, Marx did little to make it materialize.

The transformation of Marxism into a political force was the work of others. The First International Workingmen's Association, founded in 1864, was not led by Marx, who like Engels thought congresses and meetings to be of little value. His opposition to the rather disorderly views and activities of the Russian anarchist, Michael Bakunin, led to the disruption of the International-- whose members were in any case suffering from the aftermath of the Paris Commune-- but he did little to organize or lead it toward positive action. The First International was, in any event, not so much an association of Communist parties as a loose federation of labor groups.

It was only in the later 1870’s that Marxist parties began to be formed. In order to escape the onus of the Paris Commune, they called themselves “Social Democratic” rather than “Communist” (Lenin was to negate this negation by reviving the label "Communist" during the First World War.) The first Social Democratic party, which remained the senior and strongest until the Bolshevik Revolution, was the German one. It was formed out of a merger of the followers of Ferdinand Lassalle, whose Hegelian devotion to the state had only a superficially Marxian gloss, and the German Marxists led by August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht. The merger, carried through at a congress in Gotha in 1875, provoked objections from Marx which went unheeded. The German party remained an amalgam of narrow-construction Marxists with deviationists and innovators, even after it adopted a more orthodox Marxist program in 1891.

The first prominent Revisionist, Edward Bernstein, approved the development of German Social Democracy along rather empirical and reformist lines. Moreover, he attempted to provide theoretical justification for such moderation pointing out that current economic changes disproved Marx's prophecies of the progressive impoverishment of the proletariat and the increasing concentration of capital in fewer and fewer hands. Bernstein concluded that there would be and should be no sudden cataclysmic revolution, that the proletariat was in the process of acquiring fatherlands in Western Europe, and that to assist not revolution but evolution was the proper task of the Social Democrat. Meanwhile Georg von Vollmar and other party members from the agricultural south of Germany pointed to Marx's sins of omission and commission on the agrarian problem and rejected the proposed expropriation of peasant property. Vollmar's views impressed the German party less than those of Bernstein. All orthodox Marxists regarded the elimination of peasant smallholding as essential, and in consequence a delegate to the Halle Congress of1890 noted sadly and correctly, “We have not got as yet a single Social Democratic peasant.” However, the German Marxists were sufficiently flexible to acquire a large following of industrial workers, though not enough support to reach the opportunities and dangers of national power.


The parties which were organized in the 1880’s in France, Italy, Austria, Holland, Belgium, the Scandinavian countries, and England were either very weak in numbers or very broad in their Marxism. In France the orthodox Marxists under Jules Guesde remained for years a small group, and in England the followers of H.M. Hyndman never did succeed in creating a large orthodox Marxist party. Marx and Engels criticized and squabbled with Social Democratic leaders in several countries. After Marx's death, a Second International was formed in 1889, containing some groups the orthodoxy of whose Marxism was dubious, but purporting to be an association of Marxist political parties.

It was in 1883 that Marx died; Engels lived until 1895. At Marx's graveside Engels declared, “Just as Darwin discovered the law of evolution in organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history ....” Whatever the merit of this contention, it was true that Marx's contribution to Communism was its history. Its politics remained to be worked out successfully. In the countries where the Second International was represented, the Social Democratic parties seemed to prosper to the extent that they abandoned or ignored Marxist theory. Russia was to prove no exception, but Lenin was to provide an innovation: he would ignore Marxist theory when it suited him, without abandoning belief in or the intention of realizing any fundamental part of Marx's vision.

Marx, Russia, and the “Asiatic Mode of Production”

There has been much misunderstanding of Marx and Engels's interpretation of Russia's past. They came to consider Russia not feudal, as Western Europe had been, but to have had at root a different (that is, "Asiatic") mode of production. They identified "two circumstances" that "had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism": state management of public works (especially artificial irrigation by canals and waterworks) and a system of self-contained and dispersed village communities that the public works made possible. Russia lacked large-scale public works (though in fact not as completely as they thought) but had self-contained villages (which needed from outside, in one version, only salt, matches, and alcohol). Marx and Engels termed Russia "semi-Asiatic" and fully an Oriental despotism, relating it to the kind of society they thought characterized China, India, and the whole of mainland Asia (not Japan). Marx traced the social system of modern Russia, which was "but a metamorphosis of Muscovy," in turn to "the bloody mire of Mongolian slavery" (the so-called Tatar yoke, 1240-1450) instead of "the rude glory of the Norman epoch" (opened by the Viking conquest of the ninth century).


George Plekhanov, who refined his previous socialism into a commitment to Marxism by 1883, came at that point to reject the notion, dear to Russian socialists of the time, that the village commune could serve as the basis of a socialist order, for it was, as Marx had argued, the foundation of Russian despotism. (He ignored Marx's waffling on the issue during the 1870’s.) In any case the commune was disintegrating, and capitalism was coming onto the scene. In 1884 he told socialists gathered in Bern, Switzerland, that “capitalism is bad ... [but] despotism is even worse.” (Lenin was to use almost identical language in his last months.) Plekhanov declared, “Capitalism lays its filthy hands on literature and science, despotism kills literature and science.” The primary task was to fight absolutism; to fight capitalism in Russia would simply strengthen “Eastern despotism.”

Russian Marxists subsequently showed themselves ambivalent about capitalism; they saw it as progressive, especially in Russian conditions, since it was powerful enough to shatter Russia's "semi-Asiatic" order, and yet they feared and hated it, since it was on behalf of the workers and against their capitalist employers that the force of Marx’s writing was first launched.

Other Marxist emigres began to follow Plekhanov's lead in identifying tsarism as the main enemy. V. N. Alexeev, writing in the London journal Sotsial-Demokrat in 1890, wrote, “The foremost of all contemporary Russian social questions is the question of the struggle against our Asiatic despotism, which not only crushes all inside the country but also menaces the cause of progress in all of Europe.” Paul Axelrod informed readers of the German Marxist organ Die Nelle Zeit that the revolutionary intelligentsia of Russia was “a kind of European oasis in the immeasurable desert of the Russian Aziatchina” (apparently thereby coining word), but saw Europeanization as growing every day, preparing the way for revolutionary change. After Marx died, Engels (who lived until1895) urged Plekhanov to apply Marxist insights to Russia systematically; the result was his "legal Marxist" book, The Development of the Monist View of History (1895). By that time industrialization and the growth of a proletariat were well under way. Sergei Witte had been named minister of finance (1892) and undertook to promote rapid industrial development as meeting Russia's chief needs. As factory workers multiplied, Vladimir Lenin came to St. Petersburg to join others trying to influence them in a Marxist direction, and a new phase began in the history of the Russian revolutionary movement.

Marx might or might not have the key to history-- to many Russian youth of the 1890's onward he seemed to, and they contemptuously turned their back on the theoretically loose and unsystematic varieties of socialism that had prevailed among the revolutionaries thus far. But he did not make it easy for Marxist propagandists in Russia by his treatment, or failure to treat, two problems: nationalism and the peasantry. The proletariat was said to "have no country." Consequently, the orthodox Marxists of Russian Poland, for example, taking Marx at his word, refused to consider plans for a Polish nation. As a result they remained


insignificant in strength, while another group that called itself the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), but was openly nationalist, attracted wide support. For the same reason many intellectuals of such borderlands as Armenia. Georgia, and the Baltic gravitated to populism rather than Marxism. Lenin's tortuous attempts to solve "the national question," in which efforts he found Stalin useful, were for a long time fruitless if measured by the growth of Bolshevism among the national minorities of the Empire. Marx's treatment of the peasants was a serious problem for Marxists in Russia as well as several of the borderlands. He noted the service of capitalism to mankind in rescuing people from the "idiocy of rural life" and lumped peasants with small shopkeepers and the like as "petty bourgeoisie." It was left to Lenin to try to fit both ethnicity and the peasantry into a Marxian program for Russia.

Bolsheviks and Mensheviks

Plekhanov and his friends were emigres. Among the intelligentsia in Russia. Marxism acquired immense prestige, especially in the 1890’s. There were many socialists who acknowledged Marx's importance but refused to accept Marxian teachings on agriculture and the peasantry, including those who wished to revive the terrorism of the 1870’s. They formed a loosely organized Socialist Revolutionary party in 1900-1902; its chief theorist was Victor Chernov, a man from Tambov whose talents lay more in journalism than leadership. The party had an autonomous, secret subdivision called the "Combat Organization," which was to conduct terrorist activity while the rest of the SR's propagandized for revolution.

Russian socialists who described themselves as Marxists attempted to found a Russian Social Democratic Labor Party at an abortive meeting held in Minsk in 1898. The meeting was dispersed by the police; it was considered, however, to be the 1st Congress of the party-- in a series that continued into the 1980’s. Lasting organization, however, came only from the 2nd Congress held in 1903 in Brussels and London--  which promptly split into two factions, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. The names mean "majority men" and "minority men," respectively, in reference to the two sides of the vote taken in the Congress on who was to belong to the editorial board of the Social Democratic newspaper, The Spark (Iskra). The name alluded to Pushkin's remark about the Decembrists, “From the spark will come the flame.” The newspaper had been the organ of those "orthodox" Marxists, including Vladimir Lenin and Julius Martov, who wished to combat the real or alleged tendency of some Social Democrats to neglect political action for the economic benefits that were the objective of Russia's first great round of industrial strikes in the 1890's. (These Social Democrats were dubbed "Economists.") Prior to this vote Lenin's faction was outnumbered, and he acquired a scant majority only after a good deal of complicated maneuvering took place. He then promptly labeled his faction the "Majority," which proved him as shrewd as Martov, and others were fatuous to accept the permanent designation of the "Minority."


At the Congress, the issue between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks seemed to be whether a rigid or a broad criterion was to be used for selection of a party member. In What Is to Be Done? (1902), Lenin had argued that the party leadership should consist of a small group of ‘professional revolutionaries’ since “the Russian proletariat will have to fight a monster beside which an anti-socialist law in a constitutional country [that is, Germany] is but a dwarf.” Moreover, it was essential to prevent liberals from taking over the workers' movement and introducing "mere trade-unionist" ideas in place of revolutionary objectives, to head off an effort to "convert Social Democracy into a democratic reformist party ... to introduce bourgeois ideas and bourgeois elements into socialism." Party members must be chosen with the utmost care. Lenin believed that the Economist camp was already infiltrated with bourgeois ideas and that the Mensheviks were willing to open the way to such infiltration. However, the Mensheviks agreed with their fellows in the Spark group (indeed a majority of Spark writers became Mensheviks) that political work was the first priority.

In what was arguably his best book, The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899), Lenin wrote--  echoing Marx on the “Asiatic” system-- that before capitalism came, Russia was characterized by a system of “tiny groups of small producers, severed from each other by their separate farms, by the innumerable medieval barriers between them, and by the remains of medieval dependence.” Capitalism might have the merit of breaking down these barriers and lead to a political revolution against the autocracy that would have as an important participant the peasantry as a class. In several articles he argued that tsarism had both furthered and held back the growth of capitalism, in which “Asiatic forms of labor with their infinitely developed bondage and diverse expressions of personal dependence, [were being converted) into European forms of labor.” He also stressed “the Asiatic nature even of those of our institutions which most resemble European institutions.”

Building on the work of J. A. Hobson and others, Lenin was later to explain that capitalism had been able to prolong its life in Europe by exploiting overseas areas and thus had become even more international in character. Therefore a decisive blow at one part of the capitalist system would certainly involve the whole of the system. In Lenin's theory of “imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism” (the title of his book of 1916), Russia's relation to the system of imperialism was a dual one. It was part of the exploiting network since it had its own capitalist class and exploited its own "backward" eastern areas, and at the same time was partly a victim of the machinations of French, German, and other West European capitalists through large investments and loans. Lenin hoped that the Western proletariat especially through the strong German Social Democratic party, would be able to contribute mightily to the general overthrow of capitalism,
but he intended that the Russian party should also take a prominent role and perhaps even initiate the whole upheaval.


At this point the divergencies between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks emerge. The Mensheviks believed that, while it was true that a proletarian revolution might break out all over Europe in a crisis, the Russian Marxists could not speculate on such an event. Their task was first to :help bring about a bourgeois revolution in Russia which could involve the vigorous and even leading participation of the proletariat, although it was bound to promote the interests of the bourgeoisie. The Marxists might push the bourgeois liberals into a degree of radicalism not native or congenial to them, but the Marxists could not take the government into their hands themselves without setting themselves socialist tasks-- tasks which at that historical stage they could not possibly fulfill. Therefore there was no other way for Marxists to take part in the political events they believed imminent without allying themselves with liberal elements. As Plekhanov wrote, “a significant interval” must separate bourgeois and proletarian revolutions. and any attempt by Marxists to seize and hold power during that interval would inevitably discredit Russian Social Democracy, since the proletariat would demand socialist measures which were not in the power of the socialists to give at that time.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks repudiated this view. They agreed that at the outset the revolution must be “bourgeois.” However, the bourgeois liberals were contemptible beyond any hope of redemption and useless as political allies. Therefore the correct method of participating in the bourgeois revolution was through alliance with the most numerous of that element in Russia, namely the peasantry. Since the peasantry as a whole was being drawn more and more into agricultural capitalist relations and strove to free its property from precapitalist fetters, the peasant masses could bring about the bourgeois revolution under proper leadership-- that is, under the guidance of the proletariat and its Marxist spokesmen. When the revolution was victorious, there would be set up a “revolutionary democratic dictatorship of proletariat and peasantry,” without the participation of any bourgeois liberals. The unfolding of the revolution in the West might open the way to the second stage, that of proletarian revolution; or, if this did not occur immediately, the Russian proletariat, no longer together with all the peasantry, but still with the poorest, semi-proletarian peasant elements, could pass on to socialist revolution and the construction of a socialist order.

The Mensheviks counted on what could be done by a loosely organized, mass party of workers. They had little fear of bourgeois liberal infiltration; they had to trust in or hope for what the peasantry might do. The Bolsheviks feared the liberals would successfully subvert a loose party, and so favored a tightly-knit and exclusive one; they expected a great peasant revolt which, lacking any conscious leadership of its own, would follow the lead of the Social Democrats. These were the clashing views of the two wings of Russian Marxism as expressed in analysis and tactics. The emotional roots of the clash can be traced to Lenin's


deep-seated fear and hatred of the liberals and of everything "bourgeois," which disrupted the united front of the editors of The Spark at the 2nd Congress and from then on provoked taunts and suspicions of “Jacobinism,” “Blaquism,” “dictatorial tendencies,” and the like.

One gifted Marxist who was present at the 2nd Congress never became an adherent of either the Menshevik or the Bolshevik view as just outlined, nor did he become a wholehearted and loyal member of either faction, although he was a Menshevik for a time and later on joined the Bolsheviks. He was Leon Trotsky, born Bronstein, son of a Jewish farmer of Ukraine, Trotsky was troubled by the split in the party mainly because he thought it had occurred over the wrong issue. Like the Mensheviks, he placed no hope in the peasantry; like the Bolsheviks, he hated the bourgeois liberals. Precisely because he found no trustworthy allies for the proletariat within Russia, he emphasized most strongly the need to find them outside, in the industrial workers of Western Europe, Russia would pass directly from the bourgeois to the proletarian stage-- through what he called “uninterrupted” or “permanent revolution”-- with the help of the workers of and other nations of the West. Trotsky was to devote his best efforts to patching up party differences-- in vain-- from 1903 to 1917, when he became convinced that Lenin had adopted the views he had long espoused, and he was then belatedly received into Bolshevik ranks.

Following the 2nd Congress, Russian Social Democrats found themselves divided in two. The Bolsheviks had the party Central Committee, but no newspaper, for the Mensheviks gained control of The Spark and then, a few months later, the Central Committee as well. Lenin was not daunted. Both Marxist factions organized workers’ groups and party committees in widely scattered areas of Russia; at the local level the differences between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were seldom as clearly stated or understood, or produced such antagonisms as among the top leaders. When big strikes erupted in the south of Russia in 1903 and the war with Japan began in 1904, there was ample opportunity for revolutionary agitation, and for the time being factional differences yielded the spotlight to the exigencies of mass action and street fighting.

For ten years prior to the Revolution of 1905 and during the decade which followed, the intelligentsia devoted much of their energies to propaganda, agitation, and debates over the future of the revolutionary movement. In part the devouring passions of the revolutionaries can be explained by their lack of opportunity for free expression and free participation in politics and government under the Tsarist regime. Such liberals as Miliukov, who understood this, expected that once free institutions and representative government came to Russia, their hotheaded socialist and revolutionary friends would calm down and acquire the qualities of moderation and reasonableness which characterized many Western Social Democrats. Miliukov did not foresee that Lenin's variety of socialism would cause any special problems, for the good reason that during the early years of the century the groups which would be called "moderate" socialists in 1917 were still behaving much like the Bolsheviks. The outlines of "Leninism" were still blurred.


Lenin and Leninism

Vladimir Ilich Ulianov, better known as Lenin, was born in Simbirsk in 1870. He was the son of the provincial school inspector, who had been raised to the ranks of nobility through promotion in government service, hence the legend that Lenin was a “nobleman.” Probably his first contact with the events of the revolutionary movement was the arrest and execution of his eldest brother, Alexander, in 1887, for leading an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Alexander III under the auspices of The People's Will.

Young Vladimir went from the Simbirsk secondary school to the University of Kazan, but was expelled after a few months for taking part in a student demonstration. It was then that he began to read Marx, and he organized a Marxist circle in Samara, where his family had moved. In 1891 he took and passed the law examinations of St. Petersburg University as an extern (that is, he never attended classes there), Returning to Samara, he neglected law practice for his Marxist circle, and in 1893 he moved on to St. Petersburg and full-time revolutionary activity for good. At the age of twenty-three he earned himself the nickname of “The Old Man” for his ability and intensity; he laughed, not at jokes, but when he solved a knotty theoretical problem.

After his arrest in 1895 he was soon exiled to Siberia, where he was joined by Nadezhda Krupskaia, who became his wife and lifelong coworker. Under the lenient conditions imposed on exiles in tsarist Russia (and generally the same leniency was enjoyed by Soviet exiles during the 1920’s, after which all privileges were removed), Lenin was able to have books and paper, and wrote his first major work, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, while he was in Siberia. The book's very title as well as its substance, was directed against the populists. Like virtually every other book or article he ever wrote, it coupled immediate polemical purpose with exposition of general principles, Most of his later important books and pamphlets were aimed, not at adversary or competitor groups or parties, nor at the tsarist government, whose turpitude and historical obsolescence he took for granted, but rather at other Social Democrats and even Bolsheviks His sole philosophical work, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (written in 1908), was largely an attack on fellow Bolsheviks; his two most important interpretations and extension of Marxist historical and political theory, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) (see p. 83), and The State and Revolution (1917), assailed foreign and other Russian Social Democrats. In the sense that for him thinking and acting (indeed, fighting) could never be separated, he was a better Marxist than most. His personal life was always subordinated to his political objectives. He refused to listen to Beethoven because it made him feel weak. The story is told that he decided against pursuing one liaison because, as he told the lady, she was “not a Social Democrat,” to which she amicably 


but accurately replied that he was “only a Social Democrat.” However, being a Social Democrat, or rather a Bolshevik, meant to him in all aspects of life, obligations of which he never lost sight during his waking hours and scarcely in his dreams.

Lenin nowhere attempts to set forth an integrated doctrine of "Leninism," partly because he was too busy with the polemical or practical needs of the moment, partly because he regarded himself as a Marxist and not the author of some new doctrine. That estimate of himself is defensible on both empirical and logical grounds: many Marxists became Leninists without consciously changing their position, and ground for Lenin's central contentions may be found in Marx. It is likewise clear that Leninism is not the only possible or existing latter-day variety of Marxism, although it is true that persons who accept Marxism fully but reject Leninism seem neither numerous nor prominent. The Trotskyites, who reject Stalin's doctrines and practices, regard themselves as both good Marxists and good Leninists. It is at any rate true that Marx did not pretend to be the author of an analysis valid for the future, but regarded future change, whose nature he did not claim to be able to predict, as certain. Lenin undertook to analyze developments subsequent to Marx's time, an undertaking of which Marx would no doubt have approved, but more important, one which the terms of Marxism itself suggested.

In extending Marxist historical analysis, Lenin sought to explain why European capitalism had prolonged its life and disappointed Marx's hope of imminent proletarian revolution (see p. 29). The Leninist analysis of imperialism was widely accepted, and is influential today in Asia and Africa even among those who are not consciously or fully Marxists or Leninists. The aspects of Lenin's doctrine which have troubled many admirers of Marx and which seem most at variance with the emphasis of Marx's chief works constitute Lenin's politics. To be sure, his argument that “professional revolutionaries” were needed to lead the proletarian party was conditioned by his view of tsarism and his belief that bourgeois infiltration was more dangerous in the Russia of his time than elsewhere. However, he himself undertook to establish a Communist International composed of parties modeled on that of Russia, and sanctioned a tradition which has formed all Communist parties in the partly illegal and underground mold he set for the Russian party, even though its leaders may not be barred from part-time practice of another profession than revolutionism.

Lenin's prescriptions for party organization were closely linked with his strong revolutionary activism. As Alfred G. Meyer points out, “in the long range of historical perspective [Lenin] looked at the world through the eyes of Marx and subscribed to everything the latter had said about the inevitable breakdown of capitalism and the dawn of socialism. In that sense Lenin was an orthodox Marxist, and he joined other orthodox believers within the Second International in their fight against revisionism. At the same time Lenin's short-range analysis ... tended to yield different results. In place of the fighting optimism typical of


Marx, he substituted a fighting pessimism, based on the realization that things were not developing in as smooth and rapid a fashion as the Marxist algebra of revolution had foretold." Out of fear that he might, at least for the time being, fail, and the perspective of revolution might fade, Lenin advocated and practiced a type of active leadership which was governed not by morality but merely by expediency, and he claimed that such leadership was not only capable of directing the cause of the whole proletariat, but moreover was indispensable to the success of that cause. Without the proper leadership of the intellectuals, proletarian class-consciousness could not develop beyond what he scornfully termed “trade-union consciousness,” that is, reformist demands, and the revolution would not occur soon. Strictly speaking, it is hard to see how Lenin could ever expect it to occur at all.

In his insistence on the role of a revolutionary elite. Lenin was sharply criticized by the Mensheviks and other Social Democrats in Russia and abroad for being a follower of the Jacobins, or Blanqui, or their Russian admirers such as Tkachev, or other populists who emphasized the importance of the “critically thinking individual” in history. Lenin's elitist activism perhaps owed inspiration to all these sources and more, but he saw himself as involved with the problem as Marx posed it: against the background of the historical inevitability of socialism, to change the world which philosophers had so far only interpreted.

However, Lenin's teachings on party organization led him into the further problem of how the party should behave when it had attained power. There is no doubt that he took Marx's slogan, “dictatorship of the proletariat,” seriously and literally. However, if the party shall lead the proletariat to power, it must certainly secure and maintain that power, and it must be ruthlessly employed against all who would undermine or weaken it, intentionally or otherwise, regardless of the class origin of the individuals concerned. Trotsky correctly foresaw that Leninism implied a situation wherein “the organization of the Party takes the place of the Party itself; the Central Committee takes the place of the organization; and finally the dictator takes the place of the Central Committee ....” The fact that he himself, over a decade later, shared in the dictatorship when it already lay in fewer hands than those of the Central Committee, only bears out the accuracy of his prophecy. Lenin wrote many times of the genuine democracy which would come after the revolution, but it could only be realized if the masses understood the truth of history, which was in the custody of the party elite. Lenin assumed that they would or could come to understand and failed to ask himself what would have to be done if they did not. The unsolved practical problem he left as a legacy to his successors, including Stalin.


On the eve of the Revolution of 1905, however, such perspectives were not being weighed seriously, even by Trotsky. For a decade the Marxists, liberals, and SR's had discussed and quarreled over their views of history, their expectations, their programs, within their own ranks and with rival groups. However, they were apparently united in having faith that a Russian revolution was imminent and would first bring conditions of “bourgeois” freedom and a freely chosen government. After that, it was tacitly agreed, some would confine themselves to social reform and some would go on to fight for socialism. But the “old regime” would have been destroyed root and branch: the tsar would be stripped of his powers or his position, the Orthodox Church would be disestablished or destroyed, the peasantry would be fully enfranchised and freed from any economic or political influence of their former landlords, and Russia would become a “modern” state. None of them doubted that absolutism would soon lie behind, and democracy lie ahead. Few of them suspected what Lenin understood by “democracy,” but still fewer thought that Lenin would hold in his hands the future of Russia.