[Marxism] Marx and the Russian Revolution

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Oct 23 12:59:56 MDT 2016

Dear professor Peter E. Gordon,

3 years ago in a New Republic review of Jonathan Sperber's bio of Karl 
Marx you wrote:

"It is sobering to recall that throughout his life Marx looked upon 
Imperial Russia as the most reactionary state in all of Europe. The 
outbreak of Bolshevik revolution a little more than three decades after 
his death would have struck him as a startling violation of his own 
historical principle that bourgeois society and industrialization must 
reach their fullest expression before the proletariat gains the 
class-consciousness that it requires to seize political control."

Today you reviewed another Marx biography in the NY Times, this time by 
Gareth Stedman Jones, that has a different take on Marx and the Russian 

"After 1870, however, Marx relaxed these strictures, in part because the 
failure of the Paris Commune left him dismayed at the prospects for a 
Communist revolution in the West. This change of perspective brought a 
new openness to the possibility of revolution in Russia and the 
non-European world. In 1881, Marx answered a query from Vera Zasulich, a 
Russian noblewoman and revolutionary living in exile in Geneva. Pressed 
to explain his views on the Russian village commune, Marx agonized over 
his response — his letter went through no fewer than four drafts. Though 
still insisting that the isolation of the village commune was a 
weakness, he granted that the historical inevitability he had once 
discerned in the process of industrialization was 'expressly limited to 
the countries of Western Europe'.”

Perhaps in the period between the two reviews you had a chance to read 
Teodor Shanin's "Late Marx and the Russian Revolution". If so, I commend 

I suppose we long-time Marxists who have risked arrest and worse for our 
beliefs can be grateful that the review was not written by someone like 
Ronald Radosh, now that the book review section is no longer edited by 
neocon Sam Tanenhaus.

But I find it hard to believe that Stedman Jones has "written the 
definitive biography of Marx for our time." You do allow that "Stedman 
Jones is not always sympathetic to his subject." Well, that goes without 
saying. He is on record as stating that Marx's last important work was 
the German Ideology, which strikes me as preposterous. You certainly 
wouldn't agree with that, I hope.

It is also a bit difficult to figure out whether you are speaking for 
yourself or Stedman Jones when you write:

"In his early writings and well through the 1860s, Marx propounded a 
theory of history that extolled the heroic achievements of the 
bourgeoisie as the collective agent of global change."

Where did you get the idea that Marx thought the bourgeoisie was 
"heroic"? In fact, he got off that tack just two years after the 
Communist Manifesto was written, arguably the only work that the term 
"heroic bourgeoisie" might be applied even if inaccurately. In fact, 
Marx wrote in the Manifesto: "The bourgeoisie, historically, has played 
a most revolutionary part." I supposed it is a bit easy to confuse the 
terms "heroic" and "revolutionary" but Marx was referring primarily to 
the overthrow of feudal social relations rather than, for example, 
French workers defending the Paris Commune.

Returning to the question of what Marx thought only two years after the 
Manifesto, I would refer you to the Address of the Central Committee to 
the Communist League. Although it was written in March 1850, it looks 
back at 1848 as a year of bourgeois vacillation if not open 

"We told you already in 1848, brothers, that the German liberal 
bourgeoisie would soon come to power and would immediately turn its 
newly won power against the workers. You have seen how this forecast 
came true. It was indeed the bourgeoisie which took possession of the 
state authority in the wake of the March movement of 1848 and used this 
power to drive the workers, its allies in the struggle, back into their 
former oppressed position. Although the bourgeoisie could accomplish 
this only by entering into an alliance with the feudal party, which had 
been defeated in March, and eventually even had to surrender power once 
more to this feudal absolutist party, it has nevertheless secured 
favourable conditions for itself."

Finally, returning to the Russian question, I am afraid your last 
paragraph lacks clarity:

"Just a year before his death and gravely ill, Marx wrote with Engels a 
short preface to the Russian edition of the 'Manifesto.' It entertained 
the prospect that the common ownership system in the Russian village 
might serve as 'the starting point for a communist development.' Three 
and a half decades later, the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, and by 
the late 1920s the government commenced its brutal collectivization of 
agriculture. Like all intellectual legacies, Marx’s work remains open to 
new interpretation. But it seems clear that the man himself would never 
have accepted the inhumanity undertaken in his name."

One cannot be sure whether you are drawing an equation between Marx's 
hopes for the rural communes and Stalin's forced collectivization. If 
so, you are entirely mistaken. Marx saw a peasant-led revolution as 
merely the first step in a European wide revolution that would have a 
more proletarian character in the industrialized West while Stalin 
collectivized agriculture as part of "socialism in one country", a 
project 180 degrees opposed to what Marx discussed with Vera Zasulich.

I hope this helps.

Yours truly,

Louis Proyect, moderator of the Marxism list

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