I can’t say when it happened, but somewhere between the youthful summer of my ignorance and today, I awoke to the reality of Karl Marx.
Nothing about my life so far had prepared me for this man. No, wait – that isn’t quite right. Everything about my life so far had ensured that I would be entirely unprepared to encounter this historical aberration. All of my life experience and received wisdom had led me to a fairly black-and-white way of thinking, and it went something like this: mentally divide people around me into two camps: the Ones Who Get It, and the Ones That Don’t Get It. I spent a lot of time honing this sense, getting pretty good at recognising who’s in which camp. Mostly in order to help advance the careers and fortunes of the Ones Who Get It and try to ape them in any way I could. As a means of assessing who’s who, I generally considered it good form to pay attention to people’s assessment of the past and present: if they got It, I could then rely on their judgment about the future and use them as a guide to make sense of life and maybe build a better world.
You might think this is a pretty good model for life. True as that may be, I can assure you that using this model with Marx is bound to drive you nuts. Either that, or you spend your entire adult life acquiring a fearsome intellect by feverishly studying every piece of text by the great man, get carried away, seize power of a major geopolitical power by overthrowing a barely-there government, justify that by saying you have the support of the populace, then lose the only elections you hold and realise that you actually don’t, abolish private property, set up an excessively centralised form of government that you then become a victim of, realise too late that none of that sounds like Marx’s Communist Utopia, freak out because your legacy and life’s work is likely to be in the hands of the successor of this unlimited authority, who at this point is very likely to be a man “[lacking] the most elementary human honesty”, and lying on your deathbed, say stuff like this:
“The machine has got out of control”Lenin, as quoted in ‘Marx and Marxism’ by Gregory Claeys
Marx is definitely One Who Gets It, but a man as learned and far-sighted as Lenin should have realised that ol’ Karl has no idea what must be done about It. Least of all in a country as vast, rural, diverse, underdeveloped, and peculiarly unsuited to his vision of Enlightened Proletarianism. If Marx himself, upon being approached by a divine power in 1870 and given the choice amongst all major European powers, was asked to pick the one place he would never start a proletarian revolution in, I think it’s very likely that he would pick Russia.
There have been few books that have left as long a shadow in my life as ‘The Communist Maifesto’. As a work of collective European creativity, it stands tall as the creatively ambitious but commercially unsuccessful fourth album, following the expansive breakout record Homer’s Odyssey, the often-misunderstood follow-up The Holy Bible, and preceded seven centuries earlier by Martin Luther’s smash hit single 99 Problems.
The Manifesto was not an immediate success (any way you choose to define the term). First published in 1848 for members of the London-based Communist League, it sold only a few copies in Marx’s own time. It was one of Marx’s first few publications, and contains many of his best known ideas and formulations in embryo. He would expand on them in his later years, most famously the four-volume tome Das Kapital, parts of which remained unfinished in 1883 when he, quite inconveniently, had to vacate his body.
I first read the Manifesto many years ago, but on my first reading had no idea what to make of it. Some of it was impressive and profound, but the vast majority of the text felt dull, hyperbolic and waffly. Like a kid looking up “tit” in the dictionary or a militant atheist flipping through the Bible to find mentions of women lusting after BBCs, I was mostly mining the Manifesto for quotes like this timeless gem:
In proportion therefore, as the repulsiveness of the work increases, the wage decreases.
Whether it awakened my class consciousness can be debated all day. I still consider myself to be from working class roots and even as I accept that I’m petit-bourgeois now, I can never fully accept that there’s nothing petit about my bougie life. But what cannot be denied is that Marx convinced me of the essential unity of politics and economics as the two arms of the capitalist squeezing the air out of the emaciated proletariat. And it’s not just me: almost every economist, historian, politician and philosopher since Marx has implicitly or explicitly accepted that class struggle is the principal voice of the collective will, whether expressed through the market (Economics) or through instruments of power (Politics). This analysis of history has been baked into our collectively philosophy to an extent that is now hard to reverse, and is now second only to the Great Man Theory as the driving force behind non-fiction book sales.
In 1870, as if to prove that these concepts and theories can sometimes take human form, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (the artist subsequently known as Lenin) was born. His life and actions set in motion a whole chain of events that would take Marx’s thoughts, ideas, predictions and premonitions from pages to streets.
The history of Marxism can be seen as dividing naturally into seven stages. The first witnessed Marx’s and Engels’ early efforts to form a ‘Marx party’ after 1848. The second was marked by the growth of German Social Democracy and reformism to 1914. Lenin, the Russian Revolution and the setting in concrete of dialectical materialism (1917 to around 1937) define the third. In the fourth the Chinese Revolution of 1949 dominates. In the fifth, after 1945, Marxism-Leninism proliferated throughout the Third World. A sixth stage (1950s–1980s) of official ossification and (at best) sluggish development through command economies runs parallel with a revival of interest in Marx, driven by the early writings. A seventh stage of degeneration and collapse (1989–91) then follows, excepting a few societies: most were utterly transformed (China, Vietnam), others fossilized in extreme Stalinism (North Korea) or more moderate variations thereon (Cuba, Belarus). Thus, like the seven ages of man in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, a progression from infancy to decrepitude can be traced.‘Marx and Marxism’, Gregory Claeys
And so it goes. The wheel of communist history had been carved by Marx and Engels, and Lenin was the first one to give it a good hard shove.
“But wait”, I hear you say, “didn’t Marx have all sorts of opinions about what made the capitalist class oppressive and therefore, in what kind of conditions the coming proletarian revolution had to be set in?” Crazy how that’s exactly where this story is headed.
The Marxist checklist
In order to understand Marxism-Leninism, we need to first make a brief appraisal of what Marxism was based on. But that’s going to take a long time and I haven’t read nearly enough of Marx’s works to be able to distill Marxism down to its core tenets. Instead, I’ll focus on the more relevant piece of the question here: the conditions necessary for a society to be amenable to Marxism. In other words, I’ll try to answer the age-old question of what early Marxism’s precepts were and what needed to be true for his ideas of an Enlightened Proletarianism to be applicable.
Marx theorised that all societies passed through a more or less linear path of development. At each stage, class conflict would lead to societal destruction, followed by a period of rebuilding that reconstructed some institutions from the previous stages while inventing new ones to respond to the upheaval. Marx saw this dialectical process of thesis-antithesis-synthesis playing out all over society, with echoes of it in history, politics, class struggle and of course, technological development. He divided all of human history into 6 stages of development, and sought to map nations and peoples onto them:
- Primitive communism
- Slave society
- Stateless communism
So here we have the first, necessary (and almost sufficient) condition: a mature, entrenched capitalist class held up by its corollary – the presence of a proletarian class. The animating force behind all of Marx’s works is his innate distaste for an oppressive and small capitalist apparatus taking control of society’s production and wielding power by bending political institutions to their will. All of his predictions of social upheaval, institutional corruption and decay flow from this essential condition.
While Marx doesn’t state this explicitly, a more meta condition is that society should not be classless. This is evident in his idea that societies are only classless in the primitive communist phase, and this egalitarianism gets lost with the emergence of slave society – first as spoils of war and then as a necessary source of labour. So, hunter gatherer societies, nomadic ones like the Maasai of Kenya and pre-slave societies of Ancient Rome are not suitable to Marxist Socialism because they haven’t yet arrived at the more “advanced” stages of capital accumulation.
If you’re thinking here that Marx must be plagiarising some of Darwin’s ideas of evolution, you’d be surprised to find that this framework of society producing ever more incrementally approriate mechanisms in response to macroconditions predates Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ by at least a decade. Some have argued that Marx may have been influenced by Darwin’s earlier books, but I don’t buy it; there’s no reason to assume that a political economist would be interested in a random botanist’s diaries. A more likely possibility is that Marx and Darwin just happened to arrive at similar conclusions because that’s what made the most sense. If that’s true, what an entirely appropriate example of convergent evolution!
Here, he also assumes that the capitalist class is necessarily a small minority compared to the proletariat. There’s no prima facie reason for why this needs to be the case – just a general observation that if a large majority of people had tons of capital, they wouldn’t need to exchange their labour power in exchange for wages and would spend most of their time indulging in leisurely pursuits. In this way, the inherited capital would dissipate quickly in a few generations, which would eventually end in a generally equal distribution of wealth, which would lead to a more egalitarin social set up that didn’t involve capitalism.
Again, it’s hard to best Marx himself:
The essential condition for the existence, and for the sway of the bourgeois class, is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labor. Wage-labor rests exclusively on competition between the laborers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the laborers, due to competition, by their revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of modern industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave diggers.Karl Marx, ‘The Communist Manifesto’
Second, Marx was pretty particular in his definition of the proletariat as the urban worker exchanging labour for poverty wages. This necessarily means the existence of large urban areas housing a significant chunk of the population. He understood the proles as a large, unorganised mass of poorly paid labour living in shantytowns in cities, working in horrid, polluted environments with no bargaining power in labour relations. Think Oliver Twist, urban smog, think large masses of the urban poor in eternal blackface, and rampant disease and malnutrition. So, his idea of a 2-minute instant noodle version of a revolutionary society presupposed that the society consisted of large cities. This meant that rural, primarily peasant farmer communities were not amenable to revolution and the revolutionary potential of the peasants had to be built up before they could be encouraged to overthrow the bourgeoisie and seize the means of production.
The upshot of all this is that Marx’s worldview was informed by the urgency of the depredation of the working class of his age, which meant the new manufacturing class. Nowadays, we tend to associate Marx with Germany and Russia because these are the places where his ideas first took hold. But Marx’s key insights about labour and capital were drawn from the place where he spent his formative years: 19th century England. Specifically, its rapidly growing urban hubs of Manchester and London – one the birthplace of large-scale factories and “manufacturing” as we understand today, and the other the Mecca of commercial capital and ill-begotten wealth.
All of this leads one to ask “so how did Russian society compare to Marx’s preconditions? Surely, it was the perfect setting and the seeds of revolution had already been sown in its mostly barren soil?”
Whither Revolution, Mr Ulyanov?
For anyone trying to refute the strength of The Great Man Theory, Lenin presents a clear and ever-present problem. None of what he did was pre-ordained, and very little had been set in place until he came along and tore some shit up. There was no playbook that he was playing by, there was no model of the October Revolution that could have carried on with its own momentum if he hadn’t come along. There is simply no counterfactual to Lenin.
No matter where your views on Lenin fall along the “complete nutcase” to “straight-up hero” spectrum, it’s hard to deny that the man was clearly a genius – the particular kind of genius to look at the world around him, take in all its myriad complexity and idiosyncracies and conclude that he knows exactly what needs to be done. He spent all his youth obsessively inhaling every bit of text on paper, parchment, pamphlet and papyrus. By his early 20s, he was already being called one of the most ferocious intellects in Europe. For all his later faults, the young Lenin was definitely One Who Got It.
But to truly appreciate what made Lenin who he was and get a sense of how truly bonkers the idea of a proletarian revolution originating in Russia was (and still is), it’s essential to understand the Russia of his youth. Yes, it was the same Russia that exiled him in 1902 for seditious activities and would later come to adore him, welcome him back in 1917 and eventually support his political ambitions and then lionise him as one of its great national heroes. So let’s focus here – an examination of what made Russia so unusual in its demographic make-up, and how that compared to Marx’s ideal state of “peak capitalism”.
Geography – the gift that keeps giving
For starters, Russia at the end of the 19th century was still predominantly agricultural, pastoral and only recently started to emerge out of extremely primitive feudal arrangements. As such, it had only a small, nascent capitalist apparatus. This is what Marx termed as a feudal society which was yet to reach the stage at which a proletarian class emerges.
A big reason for this is geography. A few maps are useful here, starting with a map of the (lack of) arable land in modern Russia.
Most of modern Russia is either taiga (unproductive grassland) or covered in permafrost. As a result, since the founding of the Kievan Rus in the late 9th century, the Russian state has depended heavily on agricultural holdings in the Dnipro and Volga catchments in western Russia, Ukraine parts of Poland, and the vast Eurasian steppe that stretches across much of southwestern Russia, Ukraine and the Polish-Lithunian Commonwealth. In Russia proper, there was never much land worth holding on to, so the focus of the Russian empire was always to the West to grab as much productive land as possible – exemplified by bellicose actions like the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Here’s a similar map showing the extent of arable land across the lands of the USSR, which roughly held the same areas as the Tsarist regime.
The most obvious feature of this is that 80% of all arable land in the empire was outside ethnic Russian lands. This will become a major problem once the revolutionary dust settles and the newly-minted Soviet apparatus begins to grapple with the problem of governing over huge areas while deriving productivity out of a small area.
Moreover, this land was only arable for parts of the year. This is becuaase most of it falls within what’s called the “hemiboreal climate zone” (shaded light blue in the image below), which is basically a belt of land in northern Eurasia and parts of North America that suffers from cold winters of below -3°C and warm summers typically below 22°C.
Historically, this type of climate is associated with pastoralism and supports a strong focus on animal husbandry and some limited range of agricultural activities – typically hardy grains like rye, barley and some types of wheat, which are generally cultivated in the 3-5 frost-free months. The huge temperature range and short summers together create a narrow window for agricultural activity that can only support one reason a year and inhibits intensive agriculture, which in Russia created the incentive for a ruling class that amalgamated land holdings into vast fiefs, each governed semi-autonomously through feudal arrangements of bonded labour and seasonal migration. Also, short summers put an upper limit on the any kind of measures to improve productivity of land, which is generally one of the key ingredients of robust population and technological growth.
At the end of the 19th century, all of these geographical and social conditions conspired to create a very shaky tightrope for the truly ginormous Russian empire, needing to balance several conflicting priorities:
- The open steppe, vast swathes of tundra and harsh, cold deserts devoid of natural boundaries like mountains, rivers etc. meant that the empire needs huge tracts of land that cannot support very many people
- Policing these porous borders needs labour, which must be supported by arable land, which is seasonal and not very productive in the first place (except for very specific types of grain and some veggies)
- What little arable land there exists is outside ethnic Russian control, putting pressure on the state to defend itself at a time when the feverish song of nationalism was coming a-calling to all European peoples
- Every time there’s any demographic decline because of war, famine, disease, revolution, etc., it takes the nation decades to recover even a small portion of the labour force lost
- This meant that whenever there was any kind of demographic pressure, the empire had no choice but to conquer more arable land to finance growth, creating a perpetual war machine that was simultaneously resource-poor and yet eternally ready.
Not the best kind of neighbour to be stuck around.
No cities, no problems
As a result of all of this, Russia in 1917 was overwhelmingly rural. Whereas most of the rest of the industrialised world was around 35-60% urban by population, the Russian population was only around 14% urban. Most of this urbanisation was concentrated in – you guessed it – modern day Poland (shown as Privslinksky lips. in the table below) and Ukraine.
More worryingly for anyone with fantasies of an urban working class rising up to overthrow the capitalist government, there were very few urban centres of any meaningful size. Of the 24 million people who lived in urban Russia, nearly 4 million lived in either Petrograd (St Petersburg) or Moscow. Of the rest of the there were only a few provinces in the Russian Empire where the percentage of urban population exceeds 20%, typically those with large industrial, commercial, and administrative centers. At this time, out of the 51 provinces in European Russia, only seven had an urban population percentage higher than 20%.
Let’s consider the population distribution of the two halves of the Russian empire at the end of the 19th century, starting with the Asian half which included much of Mongolia, the Central Asian -stans and land reaching all the way to the doorstep of modern day Afghanistan and Iran.
The only real urban areas are in the south, right the at the edge of the empire. The big red splotch in the southwestern corner of the map are the Silk Route centres of Tashkent and Samarkand (Uzbekistan), which were already in a slow decline as global shipping had made the Silk Route mostly meaningless. The only other urban centre in the Asian part of Russia is Tyumen – the first and still the most important city in Siberia. That’s it. Russia controlled nearly a quarter of the entire Asian landmass and only had two urban centres amounting to just over a couple of million souls.
On the European side, there’s a bit more density and a few more urban areas. See if you can spot Petrograd in the map below.
The most arresting part of this visual is how heavily the Empire depended on urban areas to the west and southwest, especially Kiev (southwestern corner) and Polish cities including Warsaw, Petrokov and Lodz (all in the intensely dark western nub). But it’s easy to overstate the extent of urbanisation of these areas – only 14 of all the 99 provinces in Imperial Russia had more than 20% urban population.
One final wrinkle in this story is the ethnic make-up of imperial Russia. For a grand, centralising project such as Lenin’s Soviet plan, it’s imperative that the various linguistic, ethnic and cultural divisions be kept low to minimise the risk of nationalistic contagion tearing society apart. Was this the case? Umm…
On the whole, Russia then had neither the pre-requisite capitalism nor the level of urbanisation necessary to support a grand proletarian revolution like the one Marx had dreamed of in England and Germany.
Roads not taken
So we return to our original question: could Lenin have picked a worse place for his Revolution? It’s quite possible that he could have. If he’d moved to New Zealand or changed his name, got a new job and decided to try his luck stoking the embers of industrial action in Korea.
But other than those options, there were very few places that were as woefully inappropriate to host a Marxist revolution as Russia was in 1917. The empire was vast, ethnically diverse, relatively underdeveloped, had no real capitalist apparatus to speak of, and what few cities it had were not nearly large enough or sophisticated enough to hold a critical mass of proletarian revolutionaries. And this isn’t just my opinion: many people have said this before.
In the 1850s and 60s, Marx himself had to wrestle with this very idea of exporting his ideas to the proles of the industrial world. One of his many collaborators in this project was a young Russian called Mikhail Bakunin. Bakunin was a Russian revolutionary anarchist and political philosopher part of the First International (formally the International Workingmen’s Association), an early umbrella organisation that was trying to build a broad-based coalition of left-wing activists of every stripe. Bakunin was a prominent critic of the authoritarian tendencies he saw within the Marxist tradition, particularly the centralization of power in the state. He believed that the state should be abolished altogether and replaced with a system of decentralized, voluntary associations.
Bakunin’s ideas emphasized the importance of individual freedom and the rejection of state power, became the basis for the anarchist movement. In the 1860s, these ideas started to take the shape of the Narodnaya Polya (“People’s Will”) party, a revolutionary party that sought to overthrow the Tsarist regime and was one of the first entities to use “terrorism” to achieve political ends (our modern definition of terrorism and its association with radical political action come from reportage of the Narodnik movement). Bakunin’s critique of the state and his emphasis on the importance of the masses in revolutionary struggle resonated with the Narodniks, who sought to mobilize the peasantry against the Tsarist regime. Bakunin’s writings were widely read in Russia, and his ideas had a significant impact on the development of revolutionary thought in the country.
While his views were often in conflict with those of Karl Marx and other Marxist leaders, Bakunin’s critique of the state and his emphasis on the importance of grassroots organizing and popular revolt paved mobilise large sections of the rural population. But in the end, saying “we’ll replace the venal, oppressive state with a stateless society” only had limited appeal to the masses and internal divisions about how tenable this position was eventually destroyed the movement.
After 1905, when the Bolsheviks saw an opportunity to topple the weakened Tsarist regime, Lenin and his co-conspirators built a coalition of proletarian groups in typical Marxist fashion and managed to take power in October 1917. As promised, they held elections to the new constituent assembly.
And what happened when they organised elections? They lost and the more traditionally Marxist Social Revolutionaries, because of course they did! The Bolsheviks had never bothered to bring the 85% rural population along the journey, and the Social Revolutionaries had. More fundamentally, most of the voters were peasants who had so far had no need to exchange their labour for wages – so they were not srictly “working class”, and the recent pre-revolution land reforms had actually granted them a modicum of economic free will, which they stood to lose if the Bolsheviks centralised power and abolished private property. Once it became clear to Lenin that the peasants were looking out for their own interests, he denounced them as reactionary and never bothered holding another election again. And with every small choice like this, the dream of a dictatorship of the proletariat would slowly warp into a dictatorship plain and simple.
In the end, though, Lenin did what he did.
Over time, the consummate intellectual transformed into a ruthless political cephalopod – with a grip on state power stronger than any Tsar before him, an uncanny ability to use his formidable intellect to finagle his way into unthinkable places using only the narrowest gaps in reasoning, and always willing to sacrifice a Marxist limb if it meant he could save his neck. He found workable compromises with his rivals and I’m sure was pleasantly surprised at his own moral flexibility in pursuit of absolute power.
In studying the unlikely rise of Lenin, however, many fail to recognise the absolutely untenable argument implicit in the story – that Russia was somehow “prime Marxist territory”. Nothing about 1917 Russia suggests this – if anything, many signs point to the opposite conclusion that Russia was peculiarly unsuited to Marxism as Marx meant it, and it was only Lenin’s interpretation of Marx that made it look at that. And the now a mostly forgotten figure of Bakunin offers a glimpse of an alternate vision for a post-revolutionary Russia.
Oh, and what a Russia that could have been!