Lecture four: Marxism, history and the science of perspective

Part 4


This is the fourth part of the lecture “Marxism, history and the science of perspective,” delivered by World Socialist Web Site Editorial Board Chairman David North at the Socialist Equality Party/WSWS summer school held August 14 to August 20, 2005 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

This is the fourth lecture that was given at the school. The first, entitled “The Russian Revolution and the unresolved historical problems of the 20th century” was posted in four parts, from August 29 to September 1. The second, entitled “Marxism versus revisionism on the eve of the twentieth century,” was posted in three parts on September 2, 4 and 5. The third, entitled “The origins of Bolshevism and What Is To Be Done?” was posted in seven parts from September 6 to September 13. These lectures were also authored by David North.

Marxism and the “Russian Question”

I believe it can be argued that it was within the Russian Social Democratic movement that Marxism as a science of historical and political perspective attained its highest development. In no other section of the international workers movement, including Germany, was there so persistent an effort to derive the appropriate forms of political practice from a detailed analysis of the socio-economic conditions. This is, perhaps, explained by the fact that Russia, on account of its backwardness, at least in comparison to Western Europe, presented to Marxism an exceptional challenge.

When Marxism first began to attract the attention of the radical democratic intelligentsia of Russia, none of the objective socio-economic conditions that were assumed to be essential for the development of a socialist movement existed in the country. Capitalist development was still in its most rudimentary stages. There existed little in the way of industry. The Russian proletariat had barely begun to emerge as a distinct social class, and the native bourgeoisie was politically amorphous and impotent.

What relevance, then, could Marxism, a movement of the urban proletariat, have for the political development of Russia? In his “Open Letter to Engels,” the populist Pyotr Tkachev argued that Marxism was not relevant to Russia, that socialism could never be achieved in Russia through the efforts of the working class, and that if there were to be a revolution it would arise on the basis of peasant struggles. He wrote:

“May it be known to you that we in Russia have not at our command a single one of the means of revolutionary struggle which you have at your disposal in the West in general and in Germany in particular. We have no urban proletariat, no freedom of the press, no representative assembly, nothing that could allow us to hope to unite (in the present economic situation) the downtrodden, ignorant masses of working people into a single, well-organized, disciplined workers’ association.” [16]

The refutation of such arguments required that Russian Marxists undertake an exhaustive analysis of what was often referred to as “our terrible Russian reality.” The almost endless debate over “perspectives” dealt with such essential questions as: (1) Whether there existed in Russia objective conditions for the building of a socialist party; (2) Assuming that such conditions did exist, on what class should that party base its revolutionary efforts? (3) What would be the class character, in objective socio-economic terms, of the future revolution in Russia—bourgeois-democratic or socialist? (4) What class would provide political leadership to the mass popular struggle against the tsarist autocracy? (5) In the development of the revolutionary struggle against tsarism, what would be the relationship between the major classes opposed to tsarism—the bourgeoisie, peasantry and working class? (6) What would be the political outcome, the form of government and state, that would arise on the basis of the revolution?

It was Plekhanov who first tackled these questions in a systematic manner in the 1880s and provided the programmatic foundation for the development of the Russian Social Democratic movement. He answered emphatically, as was his wont, that the coming revolution in Russia would be of a bourgeois-democratic character. The task of this revolution would be the overthrow of the tsarist regime, the purging of state and society of Russia’s feudal legacy, the democratization of political life, and the creation of the best conditions for the full development of a modern capitalist economy.

The political outcome of the revolution would be, and could be nothing other than, a bourgeois-democratic parliamentary regime, along the lines of what existed in the advanced bourgeois states of Western Europe. Political power in this state would rest in the hands of the bourgeoisie. Given the economic backwardness of Russia, the overwhelming majority of whose population consisted of illiterate or semi-literate peasants in the far-flung countryside, there could be no talk of an immediate transition to socialism. There simply did not exist within Russia the objective economic prerequisites for so radical a transformation.

The task of the working class was to conduct the fight against tsarist autocracy as the most militant social force within the democratic camp, while recognizing and accepting the objectively bourgeois-democratic limits imposed upon the revolution by the level of Russia’s socio-economic development. This entailed, unavoidably, some form of political alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie in the struggle against tsarism. While maintaining its political independence, the Social Democratic party would not overstep its historically assigned role as the oppositional force within the framework of a bourgeois-ruled democracy. It would strive to move the bourgeois regime as far as possible toward the implementation of programs of a progressive character, without calling into question the capitalist character of the economy and the maintenance of bourgeois property.

Plekhanov’s program did not represent an explicit disavowal of socialist objectives. The “Father of Russian Marxism” would have denied indignantly that any such inference could be drawn from his program. Rather, these objectives were transferred, in deference to the existing level of Russian socio-economic development, to the indefinite future. While Russia developed gradually along capitalist lines and toward a level of economic maturity that would make the transition to socialism possible, the Social Democratic movement would utilize the opportunities provided by bourgeois parliamentarianism to continue the political education of the working class, preparing it for the eventual, though distant, conquest of power.

To sum up, Plekhanov developed in its most finished form a “two-stage” theory of revolution. First, the bourgeois-democratic revolution and the consolidation of capitalist rule. Second, after a more or less prolonged period of economic and political development, the working class—having completed the necessarily protracted period of political apprenticeship—would carry through the second, socialist stage of the revolution.

For nearly two decades, Plekhanov’s analysis of the driving forces and the socio-economic and political character of the coming revolution provided the imposing programmatic foundation upon which the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party was built. However, by the turn of the twentieth century—and certainly as a consequence of the outbreak of revolution in January 1905—the weaknesses in Plekhanov’s perspectives began to emerge. The historical framework employed by Plekhanov drew heavily on the revolutionary experience of Western Europe, beginning with the French Revolution of 1789-1794. The two-stage theory of revolution assumed that developments in Russia would proceed along the lines of the old and familiar pattern. The bourgeois revolution in Russia would, as in France, bring the bourgeoisie to power. No other outcome was possible.

Notwithstanding his often brilliant commentaries on the dialectic—which, as a matter of abstract logic Plekhanov could explain very well—there was a very definite element of formal logic in his analysis of the Russian Revolution. As A = A, a bourgeois revolution equals a bourgeois revolution. What Plekhanov failed to consider was the manner in which profound differences in the social structure of Russia, not to mention Europe and the world as a whole, affected his political equation and the political calculations that flowed from it. The question that had to be asked was whether the bourgeois revolution in the twentieth century could be considered identical to the bourgeois revolution in the eighteenth century, or even in the mid-nineteenth century? This required that the category of bourgeois revolution be examined not only from the standpoint of its outer political form, but from the broader and more profound standpoint of its socio-economic content.

To be continued

[16] Quoted in G. Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, vol. 1 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), p. 157.