Marxist Theory and the October Revolution Prabhat Patnaik

Marx’s theory when it was first presented had a far more profound impact on intellectual life in Russia than anywhere else. True, in Germany the entire working class movement, far stronger than elsewhere (the German Social Democrats used to bring out as many as 86 daily newspapers in that country on the eve of the first world war), was directly influenced by Marx, but this is quite different from influencing intellectual life in general.

By Marx’s own admission one of the most perceptive reviews of Capital had appeared in Russia; and Lenin attests to the fact that in the Russia of his youth, most intellectuals were influenced by Marxism. Vera Zasulich’s letter to Marx asking him for his views on the possibility of a direct transition to socialism from the Russian mir was indicative of this desire to engage with Marxism on the part of the very significant segment of sensitive, radical intelligentsia of that country. And Marx’s meticulous attention to her question (he wrote, as is well-known, four drafts of his reply to Zasulich), was indicative of his desire, in turn, to engage with that country. Indeed as Hobsbawm and others have pointed out, Marx towards the end of his life was increasingly turning his attention from Western Europe to Russia where he saw more imminent revolutionary possibilities.

The theoretical basis of the October Revolution lay, not surprisingly, in a development of Marxism, but this development occurred through three successive rounds of theoretical debate, each stimulated by the specific Russian reality but each having a relevance far wider than the Russian context itself, and a relevance that abides to this day. While these three rounds of debate appear to be on three very different themes, each of them is concerned with the same question, namely, must a transition to socialism in any society await the “completion” in some sense of the development of capitalism in that society? And if so, then what does the term “completion” mean in this context?

The first round of this debate was between the Narodniks and the Social Democrats. There were two strands of the Narodnik position. One strand, represented inter alia by Vera Zasulich, was concerned with the desirability of avoiding the capitalist phase altogther, for it would break up Russian communal life as represented by the mir; why should not Russia rather by-pass the capitalist phase and make a direct transition from one form of communal life, represented by the mir, to another form represented by socialism? The other strand of Narodnik thinking was represented by Danielson, who wrote under the name of Nikolayon and had entered into extensive correspondence with Marx and Engels. He argued that Russia could not develop capitalism because of its extremely narrow domestic market which in turn was caused by the abject poverty of its working masses.

Lenin attacked both these positions. In his opus, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, he argued that capitalism was developing in Russia; it was, as he put it forcefully, developing “daily”, “hourly”, so that the question of the impossibility of its developments apprehended by Danielson, simply did not arise. And likewise the mir had already disintegrated under the impact of capitalist development, so that the question of any direct transition from the mir to socialism also did not arise. (The question of how far the mir had still survived had also been raised by Marx in drafting his reply to Zasulich).

The Social Democratic perception therefore was that, given the fact of this development of capitalism, it was the Russian working class that would lead the revolution as the most active and dynamic class in the prevailing scenario. The question however was: in alliance with whom? And this was the issue in the second round of the debate among Russian Marxists. One strand emphasized that since Russia had to overthrow Czarism, i.e. had to go through an anti-feudal democratic revolution, the working class had to ally itself with the bourgeoisie in accomplishing this task, which meant that the Social Democrats as the representatives of the working class should aim to work with the Cadets and Liberals led by Miliukov at the political level.

Lenin’s argument against this, set out in several of his writings, and above all in his Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, pointed to a phenomenon that was to be a cornerstone of all subsequent Marxist thinking on the third world, namely that in countries that came late to capitalism the bourgeoisie lacked the will to complete the democratic revolution against the feudal order. It preferred instead to compromise with the feudal order, lest any attack on feudal property, in a situation where the working class had already appeared on the scene as a potentially revolutionary force, rebounded into an attack on bourgeois property itself. Since any such compromise would entail a continued shackling of the peasantry to the feudal yoke, a betrayal of its democratic aspirations, his conclusion was that the working class in Russia had to lead the democratic revolution in alliance with the peasantry. Having done so however the working class was not going to remain content and withdraw from the scene, allowing a capitalist development to occur “from below”, through a progressive differentiation of the peasantry; rather, it would press ahead towards a socialist revolution. The Bolshevik slogan accordingly was for a “revolutionary democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants” to replace the Czarist State; and it visualized a continuous but two-stage revolution led by the proletariat and moving to the ultimate goal of socialism, in the course of which the class allies and the class enemies of the proletariat would keep changing.

I would like to make four points here about this formulation. The first is that in its own way it represented a continuation of the thinking of the Narodniks, in the sense that, even according to it, the transition to a socialist order did not have to await the completion in some sense of the development of capitalism. The Narodniks had thought that capitalism could be by-passed altogether, and Lenin’s argument was that while this was not possible, since capitalism was already developing within the Russian feudal order, it could nonetheless be transcended as part of the process of transcending the feudal order itself. It was in short an emphatic rejection of all attempts at pushing the course of social development into a scheme of successive stages, each characterized by the prevalence of a particular mode of production. This is exactly what the Narodniks had also rejected. And Lenin in attacking “the Economists” (not the profession but a specific group of Russian intellectuals) who were underscoring the dynamism of Russian capitalism, had expressed agreement with the Narodniks’ sarcasm that they should build a statue for capitalism!

The second point, to which I shall return later, is that the need to transcend capitalism, or the fact of the historical obsolescence of capitalism was argued by Lenin not on the grounds that capitalism in Russia had ceased to develop the productive forces. On the contrary as the Economists had argued at the time, and as a good deal of subsequent research on Russian economic history has shown, Russia was experiencing fairly vigorous economic growth under capitalism in the years before the first world war. But this fact, or any denial of it, scarcely made an appearance in his argument.

True, Lenin had drawn a distinction in his Agrarian Programme of Social Democracy between “two paths” of capitalist development, the American and the Prussian paths, one which was unencumbered by any feudal legacy or had largely overcome it, and the other where capitalist development was superimposed upon inherited feudal relations (he was to call it “semi-feudal capitalism” in a later writing). The former, he had argued, was associated with a more vigorous development of capitalism because of the wider mass market that the breaking of feudal land relations and the distribution of land among the peasantry created. But even in drawing this distinction which later writers have used extensively, the emphasis was more on the fact that the Prussian path brought much suffering to the people, and not so much on the fact that entailed a slower development of the productive forces. In other words the Prussian path meant the imposition of the burden of capitalist exploitation upon the pre-existing burden of feudal exploitation (through high land rents for instance), not necessarily a slower rate of growth. It is noteworthy in this context that the Agrarian Programme advocated the nationalization of land as a means of eliminating the rent burden on the peasantry, which was to be changed to land redistribution at the time of the October Revolution, prompting the Social Revolutionaries to complain that Lenin had “stolen” their programme (since they had been advocating land redistribution from the very beginning).

It is this qualitatively different nature of the Prussian path that has also concerned later writers. They have for instance associated the Prussian path with the institution of political dictatorship rather than political democracy (Barrington Moore Jr.) and with a relentless quest for external markets to overcome the narrowness of the home market which the absence of land redistribution entails, a quest associated with an aggressive imperialist drive such as what Japan and Germany exhibited after their respective arrivals on the capitalist scene. But no matter how one responds to such theorizing, the “infirmities” associated with the late arrival of capitalism have been seen in more general social terms rather than in narrowly economic terms as entailing a lack of development of productive forces (which in any case is not necessarily true). And Lenin’s assertion of the need for the transcendence of capitalism in Russia was also rooted in its social consequences rather than any lack of vigour in the economic growth process it engendered.

One can in fact go further. Since the bourgeoisie’s propensity to ally with the feudal elements in countries entering late into the capitalist path arose to a significant extent from its fear of an attack on bourgeois property which the proletariat could launch, it followed that the arrival on the scene of a potentially revolutionary proletariat was itself the cause of the bourgeoisie’s historical obsolescence. There were no “objective” economic markers for it, like crises or stagnation, that Bernstein had considered necessary; the only marker was the very trajectory of social dynamics that the late arrival of capitalism, in a context where “socialism was in the air”, unleashed in such countries.

The third point is the incorporation of the peasantry into the revolutionary scheme of things. Though Engels had written about The Peasant Wars in Germany its reference had been to an earlier period; Marxism had traditionally been rather sceptical about the revolutionary potential of the peasantry in the transition to socialism. This inter alia was perhaps because Marx had only been too aware of the role that the French peasantry had played in the defeat of the Paris Commune by allying itself with the bourgeoisie against the insurgent workers. Thiers had put the fear into the minds of the French peasantry that any attack on bourgeois property would inevitably get widened into an attack on private property in general, so that the peasants and the capitalists had a common interest in defending private property against the working class.

Against this background, seeing the peasantry as an ally of the working class in the transition to socialism represented an enormous theoretical advance, which was in fact the theoretical complement of the position that such a transition need not await the “completion” in some sense of capitalist development. This perception also provided the crucial theoretical link between Marxism and the third world. It followed from it that third world revolutions which Marx and Engels had talked about need not belong to a separate genre; they could be subsumed under the overall Marxist revolutionary perspective itself. The idea of a “people’s democratic revolution” or a “new democratic revolution” as the goal of a Communist programme in the third world became the counterpart of the idea of socialist revolution in the advanced countries.

This meant much more than the proletariat simply utilizing the dissatisfaction of the peasantry with the continuance, no doubt in a transmogrified form, of the feudal order, in order to push its own socialist agenda. It was in short not just an “opportunistic” position. My fourth point is that it presumed that vast segments of the peasantry could be won over to the socialist cause, no doubt through intermediate forms of ownership such as co-operatives and collectives, that the opposition to the transition to socialism arising from within the peasantry would remain confined to the stratum of rich peasants who were necessarily a minority within the peasantry. This no doubt was a big presumption which has subsequently proved to be a source of much difficulty for socialist praxis. But there is no doubt that this presumption underlay Lenin’s perception not just in his Two Tactics but almost till his death. Indeed Tamara Deutscher in her book Not By Bread Alone narrates an interesting incident. At a meeting of the Bolshevik Central Committee after the Revolution, Lenin referred to “our State” being a State of the “workers and peasants”, to which Bukharin objected, saying that the party documents had been clear that the State was a Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Lenin came back the next day, and apologized, saying that “I have looked at the party documents and Comrade Bukharin is right: our State is a Dictatorship of the Proletariat”. Clearly he saw a worker-peasant alliance as being absolutely central to the Dictatorship of the proletariat itself, which in turn presumed that substantial segments of the peasantry could be allies in the transition to socialism.

This presumption, and in general the idea that the working class could also harness the revolutionary energies of the peasantry for its own specific revolutionary project, which got incorporated into Marxism, converted it from being a blue-print for Western European socialist revolutions into a universal revolutionary doctrine. This was so not just in the obvious sense that since capitalism had conquered the universe, an analysis of it, which Marxism represented, also had universal relevance, but in the more profound sense that it could directly inform revolutionary praxis not just in the metropolis but in the third world as well. It cleared the ground in short for a universal revolutionary project transcending capitalism.

The third round of debate, to which I now turn, was about this project coming on to the immediate historical agenda. This round was concerned with the theory of imperialism which got debated in the context of the first world war. The differences within the European Left on the question of the appropriate working class attitude to the war are well-known. There were three broad tendencies, a “social-chauvinist” one which basically held that the working class must support the war effort of its own country; a middle position held by Karl Kautsky argued that while the working class could not support offensive actions against other countries, it had to co-operate in the defence of its own country against the aggressive designs of others; and a revolutionary position which argued that the working class must not support the war at all since it represented a struggle for imperial acquisitions. Lenin, Luxemburg and Liebknecht belonged to this last group. There were differences among them on strategic and theoretical questions: Luxemburg for instance advocated a pan-European working class movement for peace, as against Lenin’s call to turn the imperialist war into a civil war. Likewise Luxemburg’s explanation of the imperialist war was set in the context of her theory of imperialism which was not accepted by Lenin. But all of them shared the basic position of opposing the war. Karl Liebknecht as is well-known voted against war credits in the German parliament.

Lenin’s own argument ran as follows. Centralization of capital which is an immanent tendency under capitalism had led to a situation where monopolies had emerged in the spheres of industry and finance and these in turn had become fused to generate a new entity, finance capital, presided over by a small financial oligarchy in each advanced capitalist economy which also had close links with the State personnel. Price competition which had characterized the earlier free competition capitalism was eschewed; but competition per se did not disappear. It now took the form of a struggle for “economic territory” by rival financial oligarchies, each using its State for this purpose. Since the world had been already partitioned, such a struggle necessarily entailed an attempt to re-partition the world which could be effected only through wars among the rival powers. What is more, any such re-partitioning, even if it occurred to reflect the relative strengths of the capitalist powers at any point of time, would necessarily become outdated because these relative strengths would change over time owing to the phenomenon of uneven development that necessarily characterizes capitalism. Hence periodic wars owing to inter-imperialist rivalry became a feature of this new phase of monopoly capitalism. The first world war was only a manifestation of this phenomenon.

Such a conjuncture gave the workers of the advanced countries a stark choice: either they must kill fellow workers across the trenches, or end this conjuncture altogether by overthrowing the rule of capital, i.e. by turning the imperialist war into a civil war. Likewise, since such wars used the colonial people as canon-fodder in the service of capital, it at the same time greatly enhanced their consciousness of the world and gave large numbers of them military training, so that they too would be in a better position to throw off their colonial yoke. In short, this conjuncture brought world revolution onto the historical agenda, though in different countries the revolution had to pass through different stages.

It was not just the first world war that Lenin focused on. The Treaty of Versailles which followed was an even more damning indictment of the nature of monopoly capitalism. Quoting copiously from John Maynard Keynes’ The Economic Consequences of the Peace at the second congress of the Communist International he argued that the Peace Treaty itself, with its intolerable terms for Germany, showed why the conditions were ripe for a world revolution.

The significance of Lenin’s analysis needs to be underscored here. We have seen that conceptually he had already broken with the idea of linking the historical obsolescence of capitalism with some particular economic marker relating to the development of the productive forces. His theory of imperialism carried that conceptual dissociation much further; at the same time it concretized this obsolescence temporally.

It was Eduard Bernstein who had, on the basis of a literal reading of the famous Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, conceptually linked the historical obsolescence of capitalism with a constraint on the further development of the productive forces which according to him would manifest itself in the form of a stagnation or breakdown; since this had not happened, and was nowhere on the horizon, Marx’s analysis, he argued, should be “revised” (whence the term “revisionism”) and the working class, instead of attempting a revolutionary overthrow of the system, should attempt instead to improve its condition within the system. As against this argument the revolutionary wing of German social democracy, and Rosa Luxemburg above all, argued that capitalism indeed was a system that would come up against an impasse; her theory of accumulation was meant to demonstrate why this should be so.

Lenin however changed the problematic altogether. The historical obsolescence of capitalism had arrived, he argued, since the system henceforth would be engaged in bloody and destructive wars, of which the first world war was an initial instance, that would coerce the workers into killing one another. Not only did he thus further delink the historical obsolescence of capitalism from any economic markers, but even suggested that this phase of obsolescence had actually arrived.

Inter-imperialist rivalry not only gave rise to wars and hence the emergence of revolutionary situations, but also made the survival of revolutions that did occur possible. Lenin held this latter position throughout his life. Even in one of his very last writings he expressed the view that the Bolshevik Revolution had survived because of the rivalry and disunity among the capitalist powers. He held this view despite the fact that thirteen foreign powers had come together to intervene militarily against the revolution.

If the conjuncture on the whole was propitious for the onset and survival of revolutions, then what could prevent it was only the compromising attitude on the part of a segment of working class leadership, and any united front by the revolutionary segment with these compromising elements would actually hold the revolution back and hence be counter-productive .Notwithstanding his personal fondness for Yuli Martovthe Menshevik leader who had been his close associate in the old Iskra days, and notwithstanding the fact that Martov’s own position was in many respects close to that of the Bolsheviks, he rejected any truck with Martov because Martov in turn wanted truck with those to the right of him. Truck with Martov in short would simply have prevented any movement forward. This is also the reason that the third international refused to have any links, not just with the second international, which of course was understandable, but even with the so-called “two-and-a-half international” of Kautsky and Martov.

Lenin was by no means averse to united fronts as such. On the contrary his debate with M.N.Roy at the second congress of the Communist International on the question of the working class attitude to the bourgeoisie in colonial and semi-colonial countries where he was in favour of a more accommodative position compared to Roy who was against such accommodation, indicates the importance he assigned to united fronts. His more accommodative position is also manifest in his adulatory reference to Tilak when the latter was sentenced to exile in Burma. But his opposition to united fronts in the European context stemmed from his view that in that particular conjuncture any united front with vacillating elements would hold back the revolution.

This however caused a problem. Within what I would refer to as the “Leninist conjuncture”, or what the Communist International was to call the period of the General Crisis of Capitalism, when a revolutionary overthrow of the system was on the historical agenda, it was not necessary that all revolutionary attempts should succeed. In the case of Germany for instance several such attempts ended in failure and a host of outstanding revolutionaries such as Eugene Levine, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were executed. Despite such failures however the view was still held that any united front with vacillating elements would hold back the revolution which was on the agenda. Hence when fascism arose in Germany on the basis of these very failed revolutions, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, its emergence was not thwarted, which it could have been if the Communists and the Social Democrats had got together. The need for a united front against fascism was recognized only at the seventh Congress of the Comintern in 1936 by which time it had already assumed menacing proportions.

Of course in Russia where the revolution did occur, it would not have done so if the Bolsheviks had gone about looking for a united front with the Mensheviks and other parties. It was not only the Menshevik Right, not only Yuli Martov, but even senior leaders among the Bolsheviks themselves like Zinoviev and Kamenev who were opposed to the insurrection that seized power. If the revolution had to happen then it had to happen on the initiative of the Bolsheviks alone. Even the united front with the Left Social Revolutionaries which the Bolsheviks forged at the time of the revolution, collapsed shortly afterwards. Nonetheless, despite the historical necessity for the Bolsheviks to go it alone, there is no gainsaying that “going it alone” underlay the fact that the dictatorship of the proletariat got converted into a one-party dictatorship. This is what ultimately depoliticized the working class itself, caused a new form of alienation of the people in the place of the usual alienation that occurs under capitalist commodity production,  and led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Stalin subsequently theorized that each class could be represented by one party and that therefore one party dictatorship as the expression of the dictatorship of the proletariat was a natural phenomenon. But this idea that each class could be represented by only one party, and that the proletariat therefore could be represented by just one communist party functioning under the rules of “democratic centralism” was not just epistemologically erroneous; it was never a part of Marxist or even Leninist understanding. Stalin’s formulation amounted simply to making a theoretical virtue out of a historically contingent necessity.

To be sure, there were other important factors that also contributed to the stiflingly authoritarian character that the revolution acquired which curbed the scope for political intervention by the working class. Some of these arose from the “objective” circumstances in which the revolution was placed and others from errors of the sort that Lenin had fought against during the debate on the trade union question. Much discussion has taken place on these issues and I need not enter into them here. One very important issue to my mind is the destruction of the shmytchka or the worker-peasant alliance, on which Lenin had set great store from the very earliest days of Bolshevism, under the pressure to squeeze out a surplus for industrialization through what Preobrazhensky had called “primitive socialist accumulation”. Whether it was historically necessary or not, it left a deep impact on the revolution giving it an immensely authoritarian twist. I shall come back to this point in a subsequent lecture.

In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte Marx draws a contrast between bourgeois and socialist revolutions. The former has a brilliance, a dazzling character which the latter necessarily lacks; it is more ponderous, more slow but more sure-footed. This is necessary because the proletarian revolution is not just a revolution like any previous one which establishes the rule of a new propertied class. It is meant to make the people the self-conscious subjects of history. Every step in the revolution therefore must be intelligible to the people and taken through their intervention which makes the process much more slow and ponderous. The Bolshevik revolution dazzled the world with its brilliance. It changed world history, a fact that is not altered one iota by the collapse of the Soviet Union: it saved mankind from fascism, it made decolonization possible, and it set up the most gigantic welfare state system that the world has ever seen. At the same time however its very brilliance points to its profound weakness. The fact that this weakness led to the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union, the fact that the revolution was flawed by the very circumstances under which it occurred does not mean that it should not have occurred or the world would have been a better place if it had not. It played out its role in history; the problem before us is to learn from its experience.