Russia had lagged behind the western nations in the development of industry and commerce despite Peter the Great’s reforms. The crucial factors in the Russian Revolution were the low degree of capitalist development, the role and aspirations of the peasantry, and the international situation at the time of the Bolshevik coup.
Marx held that under capitalism industrial development would lead to a direct confrontation of the capitalist class and the working class and that this would lead to the capture of political power by the working class. In the light of this we can examine the degree of industrial development in Russia up to 1917 and the potentialities it held for a socialist, as opposed to a capitalist revolution.
For it must be remembered that Russia had not yet experienced a capitalist revolution. Industry was in fact not developed to any great extent in Russia. Eighty per cent of the 160 million Russian subjects were peasants. The defeat in war by Germany had shown how inadequately developed heavy industry was in Russia, and yet this was almost the only form of industry that existed in the Tsar’s dominions. The socialisation of production, which Marx had seen as capitalism’s contribution to Socialism, that is, the development of industry into increasingly larger productive units, operated by social labour had hardly occurred in Russia. There were really only two centres of industry, each far from the other, in St. Petersburg and in Southern Russia and the Caucaus. The working class and capitalist class did not yet face each other alone. The social scene was confused by the peasantry — a mere 80 per cent of the population!
The role and aspiration of the peasantry are crucial in any examination of the nature of the 1917 Revolution.
The peasants were susceptible only to Lenin’s promise of land. Their aspirations extended no further than that they should have their own land. When they later protested against state policies on the land, they were hastily suppressed. Thus one of the mass bases of the revolution had to be suppressed, for Lenin had climbed to power partly on the backs of the peasants, when the motive of the peasants were certainly not socialist.
We have noted that Russia was not “ripe” for Socialism. Marxism holds that objective and subjective conditions must coincide for a country to be ready for a socialist revolution. In Russia Lenin could not ask the people to raise the Bolsheviks to power without renouncing every claim to being a Marxist. The objective conditions were not ripe, but neither were the subjective. Had you asked a revolutionary what his views were about the moneyless, socialist economy which was supposed to be approaching, he would probably have been unsure as to what you were talking about.
How, then, did Lenin manage to lead the Bolsheviks to state power in a situation not suitable for a Marxist party? The simple answer, of course, would be that Lenin was not truly in the tradition of Marx. The problem, however, has more to it than just that. The country was in confusion: food was scarce, as was clothing: the armies were in disarray on the front in face of German attacks; some army officers under Kornilov had threatened the Provisional Government which was incapable of imposing any sort of order.
In the midst of this confusion Lenin offered the suffering poor a blueprint for planning success that was brilliant because of its simplicity: Peace, Bread and Land. The way he proposed to achieve this was by nationalising large private property (nothing was said about small). The Bolsheviks were the only group organised well-enough to make any kind of appeal to a disillusioned populace. The motto of the First International: “the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself”, was forgotten.
This motto, and the principle behind it, is important in assessing how the Bolsheviks behaved from a Marxist point of view. We must also return to the 1903 London Conference of the Russian Social Democrats. To Marx “the proletarian movement is an independent movement of the overwhelming majority in the interests of that majority”. Lenin, at the 1903 Conference, had argued for the “revolutionary core” leading the masses. He was thus separating the working class movement into a mass-body and a leadership composed of intellectuals. In 1917 Lenin carried his philosophy of elitism to its logical conclusion but found it impossible to impose Socialism on an essentially unsocialist populace.
And yet can all these arguments against the material, social and human possibilities for Socialism in Russia in 1917, be refuted by Marx’s statement in his Preface to Capital: “one nation can and should learn from others”? Marx had taken the stand that Russia could shorten its transition through capitalism if the advanced western nations had revolutionary working class movements who could imbue the Russian people with a socialist spirit, and if Russia had its revolution at the same time as the western nations.
Trotsky, and later Lenin, in their theory of the imminence of the working class capture of power accepted that the western working class were about to revolt. Indeed this provided the only real justification for their taking power in a country surrounded by capitalist countries. Yet their assessment of the situation was inaccurate, and in view of the intelligence and shrewdness of Trotsky and Lenin, perhaps it was deliberately so — perhaps they were, to be blunt dishonest.
The western working class had joined the national patriotic front in 1914 and promptly gone to war to kill each other. Even in the horrors of 1917, they carried on stoutly supporting their respective governments. Also, the western working class had very small effect on the Russians. The Russians had certainly not been influenced by Marxism. Though Lenin had once called the Populists “stinking carrion” his attitude during 1917 would seem to show that he had learnt a great deal from these apologists of what he had called “adventurism” and “pyrotechnics”. Struve might well have been talking of people like Lenin when he said that only those blinded by “national vanity” could argue that Russia might take a short cut to Utopia.
Lenin’s 1921 New Economic Policy was merely an admission of a fact that the Socialist Party of Great Britain and some others had recognised earlier: Socialism could not be established in Russia at that time; the working class could not successfully get and hold power until the conditions were ripe for Socialism, when capitalism was in its most highly developed form.
This is not to say, of course, that the Bolsheviks were wrong to support the February Revolution. Progress could only have resulted from the overthrow of the archaic Tsarism under which the people of Russia had laboured long. But for the Bolsheviks to wish to take over so soon after the capitalist revolution had taken place in this decaying, agrarian empire, was to deny Marxist history.
In his preface to Capital, Marx stated his view:
One nation can and should learn from others. And even when a society has got upon the right track for the discovery of the natural laws of its movement—and it is the ultimate aim of this work to lay bare the economic laws of motion of modern society—it can neither clear by bold leaps, nor remove by legal enactments the obstacles offered by the successive phases of its normal development. But it can shorten or lessen the birthpangs.All that Marx had conceded was a shortening and lessening of the birthpangs, and even this only within his context of an international revolution.
From the July 1968 issue of the Socialist Standard