How Russian Marxism began

Submitted by martin on 3 December, 2003 - 10:51 Author: Sean Matgamna

Click here for the series on The Roots of Bolshevism of which this article is part

By Sean Matgamna

The October Revolution of 1917 seemed to many observers to be an attempt to stand Marxism on its head.

Those who said that included George Valentinovich Plekhanov and Pavel Borisovich Axelrod, the founders of the Russian Marxist movement, and Karl Kautsky, the most authoritative Marxist of the Second International (1889-1914).

To others, who supported it, it seemed to have succeeded in turning on its head the Marxism long dominant in the labour movement. Antonio Gramsci greeted it as "The Revolution Against Das Kapital" (the title of an article he wrote). Another supporter, the American Max Eastman, told American readers that it was a "syndicalist" revolution, a revolution made by the Russian equivalent of the American anarcho-syndicalist trade union movement, the Industrial Workers of the World.

To some, the young Gramsci for example, what the Bolsheviks and the workers they led had done showed them to be the opposite of the Marxist Social Democratic parties of the West, the German Social Democracy for example.

He did not just mean the opposite of the "Social Democrats" who had betrayed socialism by supporting their own governments in the war that broke out in August 1914. He had in mind the whole history of the West and Central European Social Democratic movement.

Denunciations of the Bolsheviks as not Marxists, not like the "respectable" Marxists of Germany, had long been common in Russia, in the mouths of ex-socialists turned liberal, such as for example Peter Struve, one of the founders of the Russian movement in the 1890s.

Yet the Bolshevik party was dogmatically, if not mechanically, Marxist. It was fiercely determined to vindicate Marxism. It repudiated none of the basic truths of Marxism about a high level of capitalist industrial development being the precondition for working-class socialism.

How did it come to take power in October 1917 in an empire covering one-sixth of the globe, embracing many peoples and nationalities, the most backward of whom were primitive herdsmen and the most advanced, the metal workers in the giant industrial plants in places like St Petersburg?

Russian Marxism began in 1883, when in Geneva G V Plekhanov, Vera Zasulich, Pavel Axelrod, Lev Deutsch and others founded the Group for the Emancipation of Labour.

That organisation arose out of a split in the populist organisation Land and Liberty (Zemlia i Volia).

The populists believed in a socialist revolution in which the peasants would rise up and throw off their rulers, Tsar, landlords and capitalists. As a political movement, the populists tried to rouse and organise the peasantry to do that.

The founders of the Group for the Emancipation of Labour had rejected in 1879 the turn of the Zemlia i Volia majority towards a systematic terrorist war on Tsarism.

Narodnaya Volya, the terrorist group formed by the former Zemlia i Volia majority, killed Tsar Alexander II in 1881. Then their organisation had been shattered by the savage reaction that followed. Five of their leaders were hanged.

The founders of Russian Marxism had been flesh of the populist movement and bone of its bone. The heroic Vera Zasulich had been a pioneer of terrorism - a terrorism, with her as with the other populists, which targeted rulers and high officials, not innocent people.

In July 1877, Boyoliubov, a political prisoner who failed to stand when the Governor of St Petersburg visited the prison - General F F Trepov - was publicly whipped.

Vera Zasulich, daughter of a small landowner, was then aged 25. A revolutionary from the age of 16, she had already spent four years in jail and exile.

When she heard of the ill-treatment of the prisoner Boyoliubov she was outraged and, acting entirely on her own, she shot General Trepov dead. She then surrendered to the authorities.

At her trial she acknowledged that she had shot Trepov. Nonetheless, in a demonstration of political solidarity, the jury found her not guilty, and the crowd in the court prevented her rearrest and allowed her to escape. She went abroad. The government immediately put an end to jury trials for political cases.

G V Plekhanov, born in 1856, a scion of a military family of Tartar descent, had by the age of 19 become a hunted underground organiser of Zemlia i Volia. Pavel Axelrod had joined the populists in the early 1870s.

Even those of the younger generation who would adhere to the Marxism of Plekhanov were not free of ties to populism.

Trotsky, born in 1879, was briefly a populist before, at the age of 18, becoming a Marxist. Lenin (V I Ulianov), born in 1870, had personal ties of the most tragic sort to the populists.

His brother Alexander in May 1887 was hanged together with others for plotting to kill Tsar Alexander III. The fate of his brother helped to turn Lenin, who was then 17, into a revolutionary, and also convinced him to seek a "better way" than the heroic but inadequate road of throwing bullets and bombs at individual high Tsarist officials.

On trial for his life, Alexander Ulianov explained to the court what drove him and populist intellectuals of his sort.

Such intellectuals saw that their role as that of enlighteners of the people. Their teacher Peter Lavrov had taught them that "critically thinking individuals" owed a debt to society and should discharge it by fighting for a better, socialist, order. But:

"Our intelligentsia is physically so weak and so unorganised that it is incapable of waging an open struggle at present and can only defend its right to think and to participate intelligently in public life through a terrorist form of struggle... Among the Russian people one will always find a dozen persons who are so dedicated in their ideals and take their country's plight so much to heart that they readily sacrifice their lives for the cause..."

Alexander Ulianov was 21 years old when they hanged him.

For 50 years before 1917 the many-sided populist movement to which Alexander Ulianov belonged dominated Russian revolutionary politics. The story of Russian Marxism and of the Russian revolution is incomprehensible without an understand of the great pre-Marxist Russian revolutionary populist movement which was the soil on which it took root and grew.

One of the great advantages of the Russian Marxists when they came to organise was the existence in Russia of a sizeable layer of the who readily accepted that they should devote their lives to the transformation of society. That tradition - expressed in the words of Alexander Ulianov, facing the Tsar's hangman - begins in the populist movement.

Plekhanov's biographer quotes Axelrod, then a follower of Bakunin's strand of populism:

"He who wishes to work for the people must abandon the university, foreswear his previous condition, his family, and turn his back even upon science and art. All connections linking him with the upper classes of society must be severed, all of his bridges burned behind him; in a word, he must voluntarily cut himself off from any possible retreat. The propagandist must, so to speak, transform his whole inner essence, so as to feel at one with the lowest strata of the people, not only ideologically but also in everyday manner of life.

Axelrod, who lived up to this idea, would have a great moral authority among the first Marxists, with Trotsky for example.

When Plekhanov was 20 and an organiser of Zemlia i Volia, he would reply to his mother, who feared for his safety, that his activism came from what she had taught him of truth and justice. She replied: "But you will perish."
Plekhanov responded: but what if everyone should come to think as he did? What if they really did rouse the people?

Populism was, despite its name, a movement of educated young people, typically the sons and daughters of landowners and high state officials. Populism was a response to a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the Russian ruling classes, subject in one degree or another to the intellectual influence of Western Europe.

The Russian state, when Russia began to import ideas and technology and later capital from the West, was an all-powerful autocracy resting on a society where most of the peasants were serfs. Serfs went with an estate and could, like the estate, be sold, or even lost at the gaming table, by the landlord.

Serfdom was not abolished in Russia until 1861 (which, nonetheless, was two years earlier than black slaves in the Southern States at war with the government in Washington were declared free by the US Congress). Amongst the serfs, land was still held in common by village communities, an institution known as the mire.

In the course of freeing the serfs - who would pay money for their freedom for many decades - much land was taken from their village communities and transferred to the landlords in compensation for the freedom of their serfs. Down to the 1917 Revolution this would be a bitter grievance of the recent ex-serf communities.
Agitation about breaking up the lords' estates and dividing it among the peasants would be central to Russian revolutionary politics until it was achieved in 1917 and after.

But Russia was not a deeply archaic state living in isolation. It existed in contact and competition with Western Europe. The state tried to keep abreast of Western military technology. Around 1700 Tsar Peter (The Great) drove Russia to heroic efforts to learn technology and civilisation from the West. He founded St Petersburg as a window looking westwards.

Russia knew enlightened monarchy - Catherine "The Great" was in contact with the most advanced thinkers of Western Europe in the late 18th century - with the French philosopher, Voltaire, one of those who created the Enlightenment and prepared the way for the French Revolution.

War with Napoleon France drew Russian armies into Western Europe. They occupied Paris in 1815. This contact generated in layers of educated Russians - people whose social position rested on a vast submerged serf population! - the desire for modernisation and for emulation of the West. It created a half-Westernised ruling class - whose ideas and aspirations were starkly at odds with their social base and with the reality of absolute monarchy.

In 1825, a conspiracy of westernising army officers, the "Decembrists", was crushed. Hopes for an enlightened Tsar waxed and waned, and they were always more or less disappointed.

The Crimean war of 1854-5, in which Russia confronted Britain and France, the most advanced countries in Europe, and suffered shattering defeats, made reform urgent for the ruling class, and led to the abolition of serfdom.

But the country still stifled under Tsarist absolutism. The masses of peasants were still crushed by poverty, ignorance and debt. Many thinking Russians of the upper classes felt these contradictions intensely.

Lenin's sister tells of the effect on Lenin of reading a story by Chekhov. An intelligent but indolent doctor who feels he can't change anything starts to have long talks with a mental patient under his care. He is overhead saying to the patient that they are the only two people in the town able to think and speak freely about serious matters. The doctor is himself incarcerated and subjected to the brutalities he had tolerated for others.

Lenin was badly shaken and told his sister that he had the feeling that "I myself was locked up in the madhouse".

The impasse led to layers of the children of the half-westernised ruling classes and others lower down the social scale - or Jews outside it - to create populism. The prestigious intellectual Alexander Herzen, in his magazine The Bell, called in 1861 for the students to "go to the people" to educate and rouse them for the work of creating a better social order.

That "going to the people" would begin to happen in the 1870s.

What better order? Socialism. One of the most important aspects of Russia was that it imported not only technology and technological ideas from the west, but also ideas about society. The enlightened Russians saw the west and disliked much that they saw - especially the urban hell-holes, such as Manchester, in which the industrial wealth of the west was produced.

Honest and sincere people that they were, they saw clearly that the destruction of the old order of kings and noblemen in Europe had given way there not to emancipation but only to a change in the system of oppression. They did not want the old order in Russia to give way to anything like the "new order" of the bourgeoisie that ruled in the West. They wanted socialism, not capitalism, to replace the Russian landlord and Tsar.

Thus they imported socialism into Russia, changing it to fit their conditions. All the leading intellectuals, though they were not Marxists in our sense, were to some degree influenced by the writings of Marx. Michael Bakunin, the anarchist and Marx's opponent in the First International, translated the Communist Manifesto into Russian in 1869. Russia was one of the first languages into which the first volume of Marx's Capital (1867) was translated, in 1875.

It was socialism that the enlightened intellectual youth went " to the people" to preach.
But it was a special Russian socialism. There were different trends in populism, but they all hoped that the system of village communal land ownership, the mir, could be the basis of a distinctively Russian socialism that could avoid the horrors of capitalism and its industrialisation which in their eyes blighted the peoples of western Europe.

Marx himself especially loathed the Tsarist system and thought of as the pillar of reaction throughout Europe, but did not rule out that this "Russian socialism" was on certain conditions a possibility. He included the idea in the last preface he and Engels penned for the Communist Manifesto, in the 1882 edition.

Russian Marxism would, nevertheless, as we will see, have to fight that idea of a special Russian road to socialism in its first efforts to establish itself.

Populism went through a number of phases, associated with the changing influence of different populist thinkers.

They wanted to stimulate a great peasant self-rousing or awakening that would lead to the overthrow of the social and political order. Intellectuals, students, the enlightened and the critical-minded would initiate that awakening by "going to the people".

This first phase took place under the influence of Peter Lavrov, who believed that before there could be socialist revolution there would have to be a period of preparing the peasants by way of propaganda and educative work. The Lavrovites first recruited and organised students - in foreign countries with Russian students as well as in Russia - to go among the peasants; and then, in 1874-76, they went.

In the summer of 1874 hundreds of upper class youth and students moved out of the urban centres. Abandoning their studies, they dressed as peasants and moved around the countryside preaching revolution to the peasants.

Mainly they met with incomprehension. The socialism they talked of was meaningless to the peasants.

The peasants were still loyal to the idea of the Tsar as the benevolent father of his people. That idea of the Tsar would still, 30 years later, dominate among the workers marching in St Petersburg on Bloody Sunday, 9 January 1905, whose slaughter by the Tsar's soldiers would trigger the 1905 revolution.

Mostly, the peasants beat the students or turned them over to the police.

Here and there some students were allowed to settle and try to live the life of peasants. They would sooner or later come back to where they had started, demoralised and defeated in their endeavours.

In the first two months of "going to the people" in 1874, 770 such young people were arrested, trying to make revolutionary a class that was too backward and too downtrodden for anything like the enlightenment they had in mind.

That first phase, ending in crushing defeat, gave way to the second. Some of the students noticed that the peasants did respond to the idea that the landlords' land should be divided and distributed among the cultivators.

The second wave would have as its guiding spirit not Lavrov but the anarchist Michael Bakunin. Survivors and new recruits, learning from the example of 1874-76, turned to the work of creating a tightly-knit centralised conspiratorial organisation.

Its goal would not be general preparatory propaganda and education as in 1874-6. They would abandon general socialist propaganda and appeal to the peasants' feelings about the land and the landlords. They would concentrate on the demand for the redistribution of the land. This came to be known as "The Black Redistribution".
They would call for and try to stimulate immediate peasant risings.

In this phase the new organisation was called Zemlia i Volia - Land and Freedom. George Plekhanov, who became active in late 1875, joined Zemlia i Volia in 1876.

But Zemlia i Volia failed too in its attempt to rouse the peasants. It failed to stir up the revolutionary disorder that Bakuninism demanded.

But already the industrial proletariat was stirring, and Zemlia i Volia also worked among the proletariat. Plekhanov had to go on the run after speaking at an illegal demonstration over a striking worker jailed in Kazan in December 1876.

The worker had unfurled a red flag with "Zemlia i Volia" written on it. The workers chanted: "Hail to the socialist revolution! Hail to Land and Freedom!"

These workers still had many links with the peasantry. But they were learning to struggle as a working class. For example, two thousand struck at a new textile mill in 1878. Police and Cossack troops attacked them but after two weeks they won some concessions. Zemlia i Volia had some groups in factories.

In late 1878 and early 1879, a wave of working class action broke out in St Petersburg. Some of the workers turned for help to "the students". Plekhanov, in his capacity as a Zemlia i Volia organiser, wrote a manifesto for distribution in St Petersburg's factories calling for solidarity and money for the strikers.

The Zemlia i Volia version of "going to the people" failed just as comprehensively as the first had. There was only one case of them stimulating a response in even a few hundred peasants - and that was the result of an illuminating fraud.

They circulated a manifesto in which the Tsar was made to call on the peasants to come out against the landlords and officials in support of the Tsar! The future Marxist Axelrod was involved in this affair. Plekhanov came out firmly against the use of such methods.

Before the 1870s were out, the truth was unavoidable. Zemlia i Volia was a failure. They had believed that quick success would follow from their agitation. Now they had to face their failure, explain it, and decide what to do next.

Where the first "going to the people" was raw and naive on every level, Zemlia i Volia was a tightly knit, centralised and armed organisation that had risen out of that first failure. Its members defended themselves against the police, guns in hand. Failure made the Zemlia i Volia seek another road.

From general propaganda inspired by Lavrov they had gone to agitation for immediate insurrection inspired by Michael Bakunin. Now they would take the road of terror against the Tsar and his officials.

It made them redefine their aims. In fact they took the first steps towards becoming liberals. The gun and the bomb would be used to force the Tsar to grant a constitution.

From the spring of 1879 Zemlia i Volia began to divide between advocates of terror by an elite minority - who proposed a drive by Zemlia i Volia to kill the Tsar - and advocates of a continued "going to the people".
Plekhanov, a member of the leading committee of Zemlia i Volia, was the leading opponent of the turn to terror. The motives of his opposition were complex.

Zemlia i Volia, following Bakunin, had rejected political action, aiming to rouse up society against the state and the Tsar's governing caste.

Terror was also a turn to a form of political action. Still a Bakuninist, Plekhanov was still against any turn to politics. And he said he could not imagine a revolution that did not involve the masses.

It must be "mass terror" by the people against the rulers, not individual terror, insisted Plekhanov.

At the conference of Zemlia i Volia in the spring of 1878, the majority opposed terror. A year later the advocates of terror would be a majority. In April 1879 an attempt on the Tsar's life produced mass repression by the Tsarist authorities. A dozen prisoners were hanged by the Tsarists.

In June 1879, at a two dozen strong congress of Zemlia i Volia - held in the open, on a wooded island in the centre of a river - the majority voted for a systematic resort to terror. Significantly one of Plekhanov's arguments against drawing such sweeping conclusions - minority not mass action, and for the winning of a political constitution, not a socialist revolution - was that had had some success with factory workers.

Plekhanov, isolated at the congress, walked away. He was not yet a Marxist, but he was close to it.