Russian Marxism

Russian Marxism. When a Marxian socialist party was first organized in Russia, early in the 1880’s, it followed a native socialism with a generally agrarian and humanitarian philosophy. The main principle of this philosophy was the idea that a socialist society might be developed from the primitive communism of the Russian village and thus might bypass the stage of industrialism. As was said in the preceding chapter, Marx himself was not unwilling to entertain this as a possibility.


The tactical implication of this philosophy was that socialist propaganda should be addressed primarily to the peasants, and when this was tried, it failed egregiously. In consequence the Russian Marxists were committed from the start to a belief that the Marxian line of social development feudalism to capitalism to socialism was an absolute law of evolution.

They concluded that socialist propaganda, in Russia as everywhere, must be addressed to an urban, industrial working class No Marxist, naturally, was ignorant of the industrial backwardness of Russia or of the fact that the industrial working class was a tiny minority in a population which was overwhelmingly agrarian and peasant. The bias of their theory, however, predisposed Russian Marxists to minimize the importance of the peasantry.

A prime source of Lenin’s strength as a revolutionary leader was his unfailing conviction that no revolution could possibly succeed without at least the acquiescence of the peasantry. He fully shared the Marxian theory that a socialist revolution must be a proletarian movement; but he never lost sight of the fact that he must at any price gain at least the temporary adhesion of the peasants.

Thus in 1917 he purchased their quiescence by postponing his own, or indeed any, socialist solution of agricultural production. In short, he consciously used the peasants land hunger to maneuver them into temporary passivity while socialized industrial production was got on its feet.

The rigid law of social evolution entailed also that a Marxian party in Russia must be, and must long remain, marginal to the European Socialist movement. For if it were impossible to overlap the natural phases of evolution, only a middle-class revolution could be possible in Russia, and this must be completed before the time would be ripe for a successful socialist revolution.

A Marxian party in Russia was therefore in a position wholly different from a Marxian party in Western Europe. For Marx’s theory and also his practice as a revolutionist assumed that the French Revolution had settled once for all the dominance of middle-class capitalism as the type of modern European society, and nothing comparable had happened in Russia.

The Russian revolution of 1905 was, therefore, an epoch-making event for Russian Marxists. It showed that a middle-class revolution might take place in Russia. It posed a strategical problem of first-class importance. What should be the policy of a socialist revolutionary party toward a revolutionary middle-class party in a backward society where the middle class party was on the side of progress and the socialist party had no chance of gaining its end?

Marx provided no clear answer to this question but only a few vague suggestions with reference mostly to Germany, which he regarded at the time of writing as a backward country. In 1905 and in 1917 both Lenin and Trotsky struggled with this problem; no Russian Marxist believed until long after 1917 that the revolution in Russia could possibly be permanent unless it were supported by revolutions in the riper industrial countries of Western Europe.

Another major strategical problem that confronted a Marxian party in Russia was the type of party organization that might give the best chance of success; more specifically, how should it divide its energies between legal and extra-legal activities? Neither Marx nor the experience of the socialist party in Germany gave much direct guidance, After 1850 both Marx and Engels had cut their connections with the underground, a course which no socialist leader in possession of his faculties would have followed in Tsarist Russia.

The German Social Democratic Party had grown by attracting voters in a country where the working class already had the suffrage. Until 1906 nothing of the sort existed in Russia, and even thereafter the history of the Duma, like all Tsarist reforms, was a tragic history of too little and too late. The Western socialist parties presumed that liberal political reforms and democratic rights like free speech and association would precede their success, and they therefore assumed as a matter of course that socialist parties would be mass parties like other political parties, and would have a democratic internal organization.

In Russia it might be possible to profess similar principles as an ideal, but no socialist party could follow them; it is doubtful if any kind of revolution could have succeeded on these lines. As it turned out the organization of the party was crucial in settling the political nature of communism.

Russian Marxists were divided and subdivided on this question of party organization from the beginning of the twentieth century. Lenin’s first appearance in the role of a Marxian theorist was as the proponent of a type of party organization, and to the end of his life he was the leader of the Bolshevik wing of the Marxian Social Democratic Labor Party.

He was both a theorist and an organizer but he was an organizer first, and his writings on theory were always slanted toward tactics. Practically everything he wrote, except his Development of Capitalism in Russia which was written during a period of exile in Siberia, had reference to a specific situation or was occasioned by a particular event. For years before the Revolution he had been notorious for the bitterness of the party quarrels in which he was continually engaged.

The controversy between Lenin’s Bolshevik faction and its Bolshevik opponent was conducted with all the dialectical subtlety long characteristic of Russian Marxism. Behind the hairsplitting, however, there was a real and entirely practical difference, not with reference to Marxian principles, about which both factions agreed, but with reference to the organization and tactics suitable for a revolutionary socialist party.

In general the Bolsheviks saw the center of the movement in a conspiratorial underground and in the extra-legal activities of such an underground. It followed logically that the nucleus of the party should be an inner group of professional revolutionists, absolutely and fanatically devoted to the revolution, rigidly disciplined and tightly organized, not too large for secrecy, and acting as the vanguard of all the potentially though not actually revolutionary elements in trade unions and among the workers.

The Bolsheviks, without denying that extralegal action was necessary, tended to see the purpose of the revolutionary movement as the organization of the working class for legal political action. Hence the party was for them a mass organization aiming to be as inclusive as possible of trade unions and other forms of working-class institution of necessity, therefore, its form of organization would have to be decentralized or perhaps federalized and at least potentially democratic.

The ideologies of the two groups corresponded in general to these two points of view. They reflected on the one hand the relation of a revolutionary conspirator toward an extralegal secret society and on the other hand the relation of a working man toward his union. And these attitudes implied, as will appear, marked differences of opinion about the course which the revolution would pursue once it had achieved its first success.

It is evident that the point of view of Lenin’s faction had a definite affinity with the outlook long characteristic of Russian revolutionary and even terrorist organizations whether Marxian or not, while that of his opponents was an attempt to imitate the course marked out by the Marxian parties in Western Europe. Lenin’s Marxism was, in this respect, characteristically Russian and was closer to Marx’s revolutionary pamphlets of about 1850 than to the later line of the Marxian tradition in the West.

Read More Related Topics:

The Philosophy of Communism
Lenin’s Theory of The Party
Lenin on Dialectical Materialism
The Bourgeois and the Proletarian Revolutions
Imperialist Capitalism
Approach to March Revolution
Revolution in Prospect
The Problem of Success in Bolshevik Revolution
The Vanguard of the Proletariat
Lenin Doctrine of Democratic Centralism
Socialism in One Country
Communism in China
The Temper of Communism

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