The late Marx

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Nov 26 11:39:18 MST 2000

Teodor Shanin, "Late Marx and the Russian Road: Marx and 'The Peripheries
of Capitalism", MR Press:

Volume I of Marx’s Capital was both the peak of Classical Political Economy
and its most radical reinterpretation. It offered a fundamental model,
built on the classical ‘theory of value’, of the most industrially advanced
social economies of its time. It developed and placed at the centre of
analysis a theory of accumulation through exploitation, and thereby of
structurally determined class conflict and social transformation — the
theory of ‘surplus value’. It is indeed, therefore, ‘the self-consciousness
of the capitalist society . . . primarily a theory of bourgeois society and
its economic structure’, but for realism’s sake one must date it and place
it, territorially and politically. The date is that of the pre-1870
blossoming of industrial ‘private’ capitalism. The place is Western Europe
and its focus Great Britain. The political context is that of the socialist
challenge to the status quo, a demand to turn the material goods and
potential that industrial capitalism had produced into a base for a just
society — ‘to build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land’. In the
Hegelian language Marx favoured, the theoretical structure of Capital would
be, therefore, the dialectical negation of Political Economy, a
self-consciousness of capitalism turning at its highest level of
accomplishment into criticism of its very root, its unmasking, and thereby
its subversion and transformation.

To date and place Capital is also to open up a major set of questions
concerning the development of Marx’s thought in the period which followed.
Central to it is the 1872-82 decade of Marx’s life in which there was
growing interdependence between Marx’s analysis, the realities of Russia,
and the Russian revolutionary movement — an uncanny forerunner of what was
to come in 1917. The questions concern Marx’s theory of social
transformation — of ordering change not only within capitalism. To
understand this one may well begin with Capital but cannot stop at that.

The strength of Capital lay in its systematic, comprehensive, critical,
historically sophisticated and empirically substantiated presentation of
the way a newly created type of economy — the contemporary capitalist
economy of Great Britain — had worked on a societal level, Of paramount
significance has been the more general use this model offered for other
societies in which capitalism has been in manifest and rapid ascent ever
since. Its limitations as well as its points of strength are ‘children of
their time’ — the times of the breakthrough and rush forward of the
‘Industrial Revolution’, the rise and increasing application of science and
the spread of the French Revolution’s political philosophies of evolution
and progress. Central to it was evolutionism — the intellectual arch-model
of those times, as prominent in the works of Darwin as in the philosophy of
Spencer, in Comte’s positivism and in the socialism of Fourier and Saint
Simon. Evolutionism is, essentially, a combined solution to the problems of
heterogeneity and change. The diversity of forms, physical, biological and
social, is ordered and explained by the assumption of a structurally
necessary development through stages which the scientific method is to
uncover. Diversity of stages explains the essential diversity of forms. The
strength of that explanation lay in the acceptance of change as a necessary
part of reality. Its main weakness was the optimistic and unilinear
determinism usually built into it: the progress through stages meant also
the universal and necessary ascent to a world more agreeable to the human
or even to the ‘absolute spirit’ or God himself. The materialist
epistemology of Capital, the dialectical acceptance of structural
contradictions and of possible temporary retrogressions within capitalism,
the objection to teleology, did not jettison the kernel of evolutionism.
‘The country that is more developed industrially’ was still destined ‘only
[to] show, to the less developed, the image of its own future’. Indeed it
was a matter of ‘natural laws working themselves out with iron necessity
Yet Marx’s mind was evidently far from happy with the unilinear
simplicities of the evolutionist scheme. The richness of the evidence he
studied militated against it and so did his own dialectical training and
preferred epistemology. Also, the reason why it was the north-west corner
of Europe that bred the first edition of the capitalist mode of production
was still to be discovered. An admission of simple accident would be far
from Marx’s requirement for a science of society. In consequence and
already by 1853 Marx had worked out and put to use the concepts of Oriental
Despotism and of the Asiatic Mode of Production, its close synonym, as a
major theoretical supplement and alternative to unilinear explanations.

Marx’s new societal map has assumed the global co-existence of potentially
progressive social formations and of essentially static ‘a-historical’
ones. The nature of such static societies, of Oriental Despotism, was
defined by a combination of environmental and social characteristics:
extensive arid lands and hydraulic agriculture necessitating major
irrigation schemes, a powerful state, and state monopoly over land and
labour, multitudes of self-contained rural communities tributary to the
state. Following Hegel’s turn of phrase, Marx saw such societies as
‘perpetuating natural vegetative existence’, i.e. showing cyclical and
quantitative changes while lacking an inbuilt mechanism of necessary social
transformation. Marx’s case-list included China, Egypt, Mesopotamia,
Turkey, Persia, India, Java, parts of Central Asia and pre-Columbian
America, Moorish Spain etc., and also, less definitely, Russia, defined as
semi-Asiatic. The heterogeneity of global society, the differential
histories of its parts, could be easier placed and explained by a
heuristically richer scheme — a combination of evolutionary stages of the
progressing societies and of the a-historical Oriental Despotisms, with
space left between for further categories such as ‘semi-Asiatic’.
Capitalism comes as a global unifier which drags the a-historical societies
of Oriental Despotism on to the road to progress, i.e. into the historical
arena. Once that obstacle is removed the iron laws of evolution finally
assume their global and universal pace.

The attitude of Marx to colonialism, for long an embarrassment to some of
his adherents in the Third World, was fully consistent with those views.
Marx abhorred colonial oppression, as well as the hypocrisy of its many
justifications, and said so in no uncertain terms. He accepted it all the
same as a possible stage on the way of progress towards world capitalism
and eventually to world socialism, i.e. a fundamentally positive if
terrible step on the long road to the New Jerusalem of men made free.

In the last period of his work, Marx took a further step towards a more
complex and more realistic conceptualisation of the global heterogeneity of
societal forms, dynamics and interdependence. The change in Marx’s outlook
took shape as an afterthought to Capital Volume I (first published in
1867), and reflected the new experience and evidence of the 1870s. . .

The discovery of the peasant commune by the Russian intelligentsia led to a
sharp debate about its nature and historiography. To its detractors, the
peasant commune was a creation of the tsarist state, to police and tax the
countryside, a device which conserved the backward (‘archaic’)
characteristics of Russian agriculture and its political economy in toto.
To the populists and their academic allies, it was a survival of the social
organisation of primary communism, i.e. of the pre-class society, a remnant
to be sure but a positive one, both in its present function and future
potential. Behind the furious debate about historiography of the commune
stood fundamental political issues of strategy, of the class nature of the
revolutionary camp, its enemies and even of the nature of the future
(post-revolutionary?) regime. To Marx the issue of the peasant commune,
significant as it was for Russia, was also a point of entry to a variety of
issues of much broader significance, theoretically and politically. These
were the issues of peasantry within a capitalist (capitalism-centred?)
world, and the type of sub- worlds and sub-economies such ‘irregularity’ is
bound to produce. It was also that of the socialist revolutions in the
world at large, i.e. of the ‘peasant chorus’ without which, he said once,
the proletariat’s ‘solo song, becomes a swan song, in all peasant countries.‘

Already in the Grundrisse (1857) Marx had undertaken extensive comparative
studies of peasant agriculture and of communal land-ownership within the
major pre-capitalist modes of production. The peasant commune was not to
him (or to the revolutionary populists) exceptional to Russia. It was
simply the best preserved one in Europe — persisting for sound
‘materialistic’ reasons and by then increasingly placed in a new
international and local context of advancing capitalism. Still in 1868 in a
letter to Engels he was clearly delighted with ‘all that trash’, i.e. the
Russian peasant communal structure ‘coming now to its end’. During the
1870s the works of Mourer and Morgan strengthened Marx’s conviction,
however, as to the positive qualities of the primary-tribal communities in
their ethnocentricity (i.e. their concentration on human needs rather than
on production for profits), and their inherent democracy as against
capitalist alienation and hierarchies of privileges. The man of capitalism
— the most progressive mode of production in evidence — was not the
ultimate man of human history up-to-date. The Iroquois ‘red skin hunter’
was, in some ways, more essentially human and liberated than a clerk in the
City and in that sense closer to the man of the socialist future. Marx had
no doubts about the limitations of the ‘archaic’ commune: material
poverty’, its parochiality and its weakness against external exploitive
forces. Its decay under capitalism would be necessary. Yet, that was
clearly not the whole story. The experience and excitement of the Paris
Commune — to Marx the first direct experiment in a new plebian democracy
and revolutionary polity — was by now part of the picture. With the
evidence of what appeared as the first post-capitalist experiment Marx was
more ready than before to consider the actual nature of social and
political organisation in the world he strived for. To all those steeped in
Hegelian dialectics, children resembled their grandparents more than their
parents. The ‘primary’ commune, dialectically restored on a new and higher
level of material wealth and global interaction, entered Marx’s images of
the future communist society, one in which once more the ‘individuals
behave not as labourers but as owners — as members of a community which
also labours.’

Back from the past/future to the present, the consideration of co-existence
and mutual dependence of capitalist and non-capitalist (pre-capitalist?)
social forms made Marx increasingly accept and consider ‘uneven
development’ in all its complexity. New stress was also put on the
regressive aspects of capitalism and on its link with the issue of the
state in Russia. The acceptance of unilinear ‘progress’ is emphatically
out. The extension of an essentially evolutionist model through the ideas
of Oriental Despotism is by now insufficient. Specifically, Marx came to
see the decline of the peasant commune in Western Europe and its crisis, in
Russia, not as a law of social sciences — spontaneous economic process —
but as the result of an assault on the majority of the people, which could
and should be fought. The consideration of the Russian commune in the
drafts of the ‘Letter of Zasulich’ brought all this to the surface. It will
be best to present the essence of the message in Marx’s own words.

To begin with, ‘what threatens the life of the Russian commune is neither
historical inevitability nor a theory but oppression by the State and
exploitation by capitalist intruders whom the State made powerful at the
peasant’s expense.’ The type of society in question was singled out by its
international context, i.e. ‘modern historical environment: it is
contemporaneous with a higher culture and it is linked to a world market in
which capitalist production is predominant,’ while the country ‘is not,
like the East Indies the prey of a conquering foreign power.’ The
class-coalition of peasant-destroyers — the power-block in societies with
peasant numerical predominance — was defined as ‘the state . . . the trade
. . . the landowners and . . . from within [the peasant commune] . . . the
usery’ (italics added), i.e. state, merchant capitalists, squires and
kulaks — in that order. The whole social system was referred to as a
specific ‘type of capitalism fostered by the state at the peasants’ expense’.

To Marx the fact that the Russian commune was relatively advanced in type,
being based not on kinship but on locality, and its ‘dual nature’
represented by ‘individual’ as well as ‘communal land’ ownership, offered
the possibility of two different roads of development. The state and the
specific variety of state-bred capitalism were assaulting, penetrating and
destroying the commune. It could be destroyed, but there was no ‘fatal
necessity’ for it. The corporate aspect of the commune’s existence could
prevail, once revolution had removed the anti-commune pressures and the
advanced technology developed by Western capitalism was put to new use
under the communal control of the producers. Such a solution would indeed
be best for Russia’s socialist future. The main limitation of the rural
commune, i.e. their isolation, which facilitated a Russian edition of
‘centralised despotism’, could be overcome by the popular insurrection and
the consequent supplementing of the state-run volost by ‘assemblies elected
by the communes — an economic and administrative body serving their own
interest’. That is, shockingly, peasants running their own affairs, within
and as a part of socialist society. Indeed, the Russian peasants’
‘familiarity with corporate ("artel") relations would greatly smooth their
transition from small plot to collective farming’ but there is a condition
to it all: ‘the Russian society having for so long lived at the expense of
the rural commune owes it the initial resources required for such a
change,’ i.e. the precise reverse of ‘primitive accumulation’ was now
defined by Marx as the condition for successful collectivisation of the
Russian peasant agriculture. Also, it would be gradual change . . . ‘[in
which] the first step would be to place the commune under normal conditions
[i.e. in a non-exploitive context] on its present basis.'

In conclusion, to Marx, a timely revolutionary victory could turn the
Russian commune into a major ‘vehicle of social regeneration’. A ‘direct
starting point of the system to which the contemporary society strives’ and
a grass root framework for ‘large-scale co-operative labour’ and the use of
‘modern machinery’. Moreover, that may make some chiefly peasant countries
‘supreme in that sense to the societies where capitalism rules’. That is,
indeed, why ‘the Western precedent would prove here nothing at all.’
Morevoer, ‘the issue is not that of a problem to be solved but simply of an
enemy, who had to be beaten . . . to save the Russian commune one needs a
Russian revolution.’ Note the expression Russian revolution, twice repeated
within the text. Finally, to understand it all ‘one must descend from pure
theory to Russian reality’ and not be frightened by the word ‘archaic’, for
‘the new system to which the modern society is tending will be a revival in
a superior form of an archaic social type.’

The issue of the peasant commune was used by Marx also as a major way to
approach a set of fundamental problems, new to his generation, but which
would be nowadays easily recognised as those of ‘developing societies’, be
it ‘modernisation’, ‘dependency’ or the ‘combined and uneven’ spread of
global capitalism and its specifically ‘peripheral’ expression. There were
several such components of Marx’s new itinerary of topics for study and
preliminary conclusions, none of which worked out in full. At the centre
lies the newly perceived notion of ‘uneven development’, interpreted not
quantitatively (i.e. that ‘some societies move faster than others’) but as
global interdependence of societal transformations. The ‘Chronological
Notes’, i.e. a massive conspectus of Marx written in 1880-2, is directly
relevant here. As rightly noticed in an interesting contribution of B.
Porshnev (who refers it to the ‘last 9-12 years period of Marx’s life’), it
shows Marx’s attention turning to ‘the problem of historical
interdependence of people and countries in the different period of global
history, i.e. the synchronic unity of history’ (and one should add to
dichronic intersocietal unity). Marx comes now to assume also for the
future a multiplicity of roads of social transformation, within the global
framework of mutual and differential impact. (Already in the Grundrisse he
had accepted it manifestly for the pre-capitalist past.) That is indeed why
the generalised application of the discussion of primitive accumulation’ in
Volume I of Capital is by 1877 so explicitly rejected. As is documented and
argued by Wada, it meant also that Marx had begun to perceive the structure
unique to backward capitalism— to say ‘structures’ would probably be to say
it better. The idea of ‘dependent development’ is not yet there, but its
foundation is laid. To sum it up bluntly, to Marx, the England he knew
‘that is more developed industrially’ did not and indeed could not any
longer ‘show to the less developed’ Russia the image of its own future’. By
one of history’s ironies, a century later we are still trying to shed the
opposite claim of post-1917 Russia’s monopoly over revolutionary
imagination, the assumption that it is Russia which is to show to all of
the Englands of our time the image of their socialist futures.

Marx’s new turn of mind was unmistakably recognised and acknowledged after
their fashion by doctrinaire marxists. The ‘Letter to the Editorial Board
of Otechestvennye Zapiski’ was left unpublished by the Emancipation of
Labour group, despite promises to Engels who let theni have it for
publication. The ‘Letter to Zasulich’, written by explicit request to make
Marx’s views known, was not published by them either. (The first of these
was initially published in 1887 by the Messetiger of People’s Will, the
second only in 1924). Much psychologistic rubbish was written in Russia and
in the West about how and why those writings were forgotten by Plekhanov,
Zasulich, Axelrod etc. and about the ‘need for specialised psychologists to
have it explained’. It was probably simpler and cruder. Already in Marx’s
own generation there were marxists who knew better than Marx what marxism
is and were prepared to censor him on the sly, for his own sake.

The clearest salute to Marx’s originality and to his new views was given a
generation later by the most erudite of the Russian marxists of his time,
Ryazanov, the first director of the Marx- Engels Institute in Moscow who
published first in 1924 the four drafts of the ‘Letter to Zasulich’
(discovered by him in 1911). To him, the four drafts written during less
than two weeks of intensive intellectual and political considerations
indicated the decline of Marx’s capacities. On top of that hint he has
added, quoting Edward Bernstein, an additional explanation for Marx’s
populist deviation: ‘Marx and Engels have restricted the expression of
their scepticism not to discourage too much the Russian revolutionaries. ~
Poor old Marx was clearly going senile at 63 or else engaging in little
lies of civility and expedience, once he departed from the ‘straight and
narrow’ of the marxism of his epigones. (An amusing affinity — during and
after the 1905-7 Revolution, Lenin was accused of leaning toward populism
by some of his marxist adversaries and associates. It seems that those two
have had a ‘deviation’ in common.)

Louis Proyect
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