The Bourgeois and the Proletarian Revolutions

The Bourgeois and the Proletarian Revolutions. No principle of Marxian strategy was better settled than the rule that it is impossible to make a revolution by force or conspiracy before the time is ripe, that is, before the contradictions in a society have produced a revolutionary situation. It was this which was thought to distinguish Marx’s scientific socialism from utopian-ism or mere adventurism.

Engels had used no less than three chapters of Anti-Duhring to reinforce and illustrate this principle. Its locus classicus, however, was the passage in the Preface to Capital in which Marx said that though one nation can learn from another, it can neither overlap the natural phases of evolution nor shuffle them out of the world by,decrees.

He had said also that a country in which industrial development is more advanced than in others, simply presents those others with a picture of their own future. All that a revolutionist can do is to shorten and lessen the birth pangs, or make the necessary transition to socialism as rapidly as possible. The literal meaning of these passages seemed to be that all societies must, by a natural law, pass through the three stages of feudalism, capitalism, and socialism, the transition in each case being made by a revolution.

For a reason already mentioned this law had special importance for Russian Marxists. A Marxian socialist, however, was in the position of having to tolerate temporarily a middle-class government which he was morally committed to overthrow. His proper attitude in this relationship was always a matter of concern, but in Western Europe, by the end of the century, it had got a conventional solution: Socialists would support liberal political reforms that would strengthen the working class but they would not enter coalition governments with middle-class parties.

This solution was irrelevant for a Russian Marxist. In Russia there were as yet neither parliamentary institutions nor ministerial governments, nor had there been a middle-class revolution. According to the theory the growth of a capitalist economy must first cause a middle class revolution to destroy the feudalism of the Tsarist government and to set up the liberal political institutions appropriate to a bourgeois society. Only then could there be any hope of going on to socialism. For dialectical materialism seemed to prove that the revolutionary spirit of the proletariat and its political education could evolve only as results of industrialism and political liberalism.

A Russian socialist party must therefore adapt its tactics to those of middle-class parties not in power but presumed also to be revolutionary, and it must support middle-class revolution. Nevertheless, the middle class was still the implacable class enemy of the proletariat, and the latter must not entangle itself in a middle-class revolution so closely as to prejudice the future success of its own revolution.

The Russian revolution of 1909 made this problem acute. For it held out the hope that revolution in Russia was possible or even imminent, yet it evidently was far from being a completed middle-class revolution. Nothing in the current politics of Western Europe corresponded to this, and indeed there was not much in Marx that bore directly on it. For the main outline of Marx’s philosophy depended on the presumption that the French Revolution had already marked a clear line between feudalism and capitalism.

In 1848 and even a good deal later Marx had believed that a socialist revolution was imminent only in France or perhaps in England. The closest analogue to the Russian situation was Germany, which Marx considered a backward country and which in 1848 he expected to follow the road already traveled by France. Even in 1875, in the Critique of the Gotha Program, he said that the majority of the ailing people in Germany consists of peasants and not of proletarians, which exactly described the state of affairs in Russia in 1905.

By the end of the century, however, German socialism had settled down to a gradual program of reform (though the theory of its party remained revolutionary), and this too gave little guidance to active revolutionists in Russia. The result was that passing comments, that appeared relevant to a non-industrialized country, though they might have little relation to Marx’s large generalizations, became very important for Russian Marxists.

The problem of the two revolutions was the subject of much anxious thought after 1905, because no responsible Marxist could contemplate the possibility of over-leaping the middle-class revolution by simply seizing power. Two incompatible theories existed, with corresponding ideas about the tactics suitable for a Marxian party in Russia. One belonged to the Mensheviks and was in line with their tendency to imitate as closely as possible the great Marxian parties of the West, It followed a conventional line it was impossible that socialism should succeed in Russia until after the development of capitalist industry and the slow growth of the proletariat into a majority.

In a revolution Marxists must therefore support the middle class; after the revolution had liberalized politics, the socialist parties would form a left-wing opposition until the time should be ripe for the socialist revolution. The tactical supposition behind this theory was that the Russian middle class was in fact revolutionary and would take the lead, and its implication was that a socialist party should look for allies among the more liberal of the middle-class parties.

Though this theory was unexceptionably orthodox, it would be hard to imagine a leg inspiring program; for an Indefinite period a Marxian party could look forward to nothing but an auxiliary position. In fact it was not very realistic, for it suggested no constructive policy toward the peasantry which in Russia was the most serious of all tactical problems. Neither Lenin nor Trotsky, though the latter had been allied with the Mensheviks, could possibly be content with this kind of program.

Far the boldest attack on the problem of the two revolutions wag made by Trotsky. Indeed, his theory of permanent revolution was as brilliant an example of Marxian analysis as can easily be found. He dismissed the Menshevik theory as primitive Marxism.

To imagine that there is an automatic dependence between the dictatorship of the proletariat and the technical and productive resources of a country is to understand economic determinism in a very primitive way. Such a conception would have nothing to do with Marxism.

Marxism is above all a method of analysis. It must take account of the whole situation, in Russia and in international capitalism. In the first place, Trotsky argued, the Russian middle class is timid and feeble, not comparable with the French bourgeoisie in 1789. For industry in Russia always depended on the state or on foreign capital, which in turn looked to the state to guarantee its investments. But in the second place, Russian industry has already created a proletariat, for it adopted modern technology and large-scale organization ready made. The result is that the Russian industrialist is more afraid of his laborers than of the autocracy. Even in 1848 the German middle class failed to push through its revolution, and in 1905 the Russian urban workers led the revolution.

Accordingly, Trotsky boldly concluded, in a country economically backward, the proletariat can take power earlier than in countries where capitalism is advanced. It must, of course, begin as in a sense a middle-class revolution, for it must destroy the relics of feudalism, but it will never be able to stop there. It will have to go on to attack capitalism by expropriating large estates and supporting the peasants against the landlords: the two revolutions will merge.

The peasants, for the time being, will regard the workers as liberators. Political power passes over necessarily into the hands of the class that has played the leading role in the struggle, the working class; and the revolutionary government will be a proletarian dictatorship. The merging of the two revolutions Trotsky called the law of combined development.

The workers can take power, but can they keep it? This depends, Trotsky argued, not on Russia but on what happens in Western Europe. The alliance of workers and peasants will be temporary, for though the peasants will side with the workers against the landlords, they will not support collectivism or internationalism. The workers revolution will be met by the intervention of capitalist governments, and in turn the workers will have to incite rebellion in the proletariat of the West.

By itself the Russian proletariat will never be able to build a socialist economy; unless it gets the support of the world proletariat, the working class of Russia will inevitably be crushed by the counterrevolution. That Western Europe was in fact ripe for revolution was a belief very generally held by Marxists when Trotsky wrote, and that the Russian revolution was doomed without the support of revolution at least in Germany was a belief universally held by Russian Marxists even when the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917.

This indeed was all that saved their Marxian orthodoxy by keeping a Russian ;evolution within the limits of an international theory of capitalist development. The revolution of 1917, therefore, was in fact begun on a concept substantially like the theory of permanent revolution which Trotsky formulated in 1906.

From the standpoint of what he called primitive Marxism, a socialist revolution in the least industrialized of European countries could be nothing but a hare-brained adventure. Its success permanently changed the conventional conception of Marxism: as Stalin said much later, the chain breaks at its weakest link. In reality Trotsky’s analysis showed that economic explanation has no relation to Marx’s iron laws of history.

Lenin’s reflections on the two revolutions produced nothing so logically elegant as the theory of the permanent revolution, which for some reason he did not think very important. Yet he came to conclusions that were not very different. Characteristically, Lenin thought in terms of tactics, and he was not willing to prejudge how the several forces in a Russian revolution might organize themselves.

He assumed as everyone did that a socialist revolution could count on support from the West, and he fully shared Trotsky’s distrust of the Russian middle class, presumably for much the same reasons. Accordingly, the Menshevik policy of an alliance with a middle-class party seemed to him unrealistic.

Lenin accused Trotsky of overlooking the peasantry, but the difference between the two men was at most a matter of emphasis, for if the middies class could not be relied on, the only possible alternative was a temporary alliance of the industrial working class with the peasants, and this was the important strategical idea that both men adopted.

Lenin believed that a revolution might begin with an agrarian revolt and might grow, under the leadership of the working class, into a genuine middle-class revolution. In 1905 he named his program, the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.

The first step was to support the peasantry In expropriating the large landlords, but this involved the risk that such a revolution might settle down to a Junker compromise like Prussia. Hence the object of the proletariat must be to force it along to a complete democratic republic. At no time, in 1905 or later, did Lenin wish to create a class of peasant proprietors; the only reform movement he ever feared was Stolypin’s effort to do just this after 1907.

Lenin’s policy was to nationalize the land, which would turn the peasants into ten ants of the state and would be a step toward a bourgeois economy, It would be also a step toward collectivist agriculture-how large a step the peasants were to discover in the 1930’s-but in 1905 Lenin was still thinking of completing the middle-class revolution.

The central idea emphasized by Lenin was that the peasantry had revolutionary possibilities which a proletarian party could exploit, but like Trotsky he realized that such an alliance must be temporary, He therefore called his theory a plan for a provisional revolutionary government. At some point the alliance with the peasantry would have to be shifted to an alliance with the proletariat of Western Europe. How long an interval would elapse between the two alliances he did not pretend to know. Even before Trotsky he occasionally speculated about the interval vanishing altogether, though he continued to assert that the two revolutions would still be distinct.

From the democratic revolution we shall at once, according to the degree of our strength, the strength of the class conscious and organized proletariat, begin to pass over to the socialist revolution. We stand for continuous revolution. We shall not stop half way.

Yet at the same time he was still writing passages that might have come from a Menshevik.

Of course, in concrete historical circumstances, the elements of the past become interwoven with those of the future, the two paths get mixed. But this does not prevent us from drawing a logical and historical line of demarcation between the important stages of development. Surely we all draw the distinction between bourgeois revolution and socialist revolution, we all absolutely insist on the necessity of drawing a strict line between them; but can it be denied that in history certain particular elements of both revolutions become interwoven?

Even ten years later, after the outbreak of World War had again made revolution in Russia a practical question, Lenin was still saying that the shift of the alliance from the peasantry to the European proletariat would be sufficient to keep the two revolutions distinct. Even though the interval vanished in a point, the distinction must still be preserved. Lenin’s rather desperate struggle with his Marxian orthodoxy seems to have had an underlying reason he could not abandon a belief that the distinction between the two revolutions somehow guaranteed the democracy of the socialist revolution which was to follow.

For no Marxist can forget, he said in the Two Tactics cited above, that there can be no road to real freedom for the proletariat except bourgeois freedom and bourgeois progress, complete political liberty, which he felt to be covered by his formula, a revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. At the same time it is clear from the passages quoted above that even in 1905 Lenin had all the important pieces of a theory substantially like Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution.

It is also clear, however, that if the two revolutions merged, there would be no real similarity with the long development of the socialist parties in the West and their experience with the processes of liberal responsible government.

Lenin’s scruple about bourgeois freedom was at bottom a ritual scruple rather than a real conviction about the value of political democracy, just as Trotsky’s scruple about the dictatorship of Lenin’s party was a ritual scruple rather than a real conviction about the badness of dictatorship. Both scruples vanished like smoke before the opportunity of 1917.

Read More Related Topics:

The Philosophy of Communism
Russian Marxism
Lenin’s Theory of The Party
Lenin on Dialectical Materialism
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