Marxism and populism in Russia

Submitted by Anon on 22 January, 2004 - 4:17 Author: John O'Mahony

Click here for the series on The Roots of Bolshevism of which this article is part
By John O'Mahony

In the first instalment of this series I traced in broad outline the populist revolutionary environment in which Russian Marxism emerged.

In the mid 19th century a great wave of radical, leftist, people-oriented - "populist" - rebellion developed among the educated youth of Russia. In 1874-6 the populists "went to the people" in the countryside with revolutionary socialist propaganda and failed.
The populist movement Zemlya i Volya (ZiV) then tried to rouse the peasants to immediate revolution against the Tsar, and failed again.

Next, against the opposition of the future founder of a distinctively Marxist movement, George Valentinovich Plekhanov, the populists made a turn to politics in the form of terrorism against the high officials.

Plekhanov, walking away from the Voronyazh congress of ZiV in June 1879 which sanctioned the new turn, was, I wrote, not yet a Marxist, but close to it.

That was true. Yet Plekhanov walked away from Voronyazh not as someone breaking with his previous ideas, but as their defender against the majority at the ZiV congress who were, in Plekhanov's opinion and in fact, breaking with them.

Plekhanov was still a "conservative" populist, an unreconstructed follower of the ideas of Mikhail Bakunin which had guided the previous phase of populist activity, and not an innovator. He opposed the decision of the ZiV congress to turn towards systematic terrorism, not because it was terrorism but because the projected turn to terrorism to back up the demand for a constitution was a turn towards politics. He was not against the assassination of state officials and members of the ruling class. Indeed, one of his comrades, Vera Zasulich, had, as we saw, been a pioneer of such terrorism.

It is common for writers on the early Russian Marxists to read back onto the earlier period their attitude 20 years later to the terrorist-populist movement, the "Social Revolutionary Party" (SRs). The Russian Marxists called the SRs the "epigones", the unworthy successors, of the earlier movement created by those from whom Plekhanov had broken in 1879, and denounced their terrorism.

But earlier the Group for the Emancipation of Labour, the Marxist organisation which Plekhanov and others would found in exile in 1883, had explicitly endorsed the terrorism of Narodnaya Volya, the movement founded by Plekhanov's opponents in ZiV.

The dialectical paradox is in the fact that Plekhanov moved towards Marxism by first entrenching himself in the old anti-political populism against those who had drawn political conclusions from both the failure of the movement to "go to the people" with socialist enlightenment in the mid 1870s and ZiV's attempts to rouse the peasants to revolt after 1876.

Insofar as Plekhanov was already a "Marxist" in 1879, he shared that Marxism with his ZiV opponents, who accepted, though not without eclectic admixtures, the basic Marxist outlook on history.

As can be seen in the collected letters of Marx and Engels, Peter Lavrov, the "theorist" of the movement to go to the people to educate them about socialism and politics in the broadest sense, had close and friendly personal relations with Karl Marx in the 1870s. Mikhail Bakunin, the inspirer of the "rebels" of ZiV, who tried to rouse the peasants into immediate revolt, had translated the Communist Manifesto into Russian. In the last phase of a long and politically multi-faceted life, Bakunin rejected what he called Marx's "state socialism". But Bakunin proclaimed himself in agreement with Marx's interpretation of history.

Others of broadly populist persuasion would translate volume one of Capital into Russian, as early as 1872.

Plekhanov was already a "Marxist", but only in the sense that all the leading populists of that time were Marxists. What separated him from the majority of ZiV in June 1879 was his stubborn defence of Bakuninism and the Bakuninist approach to politics.

What then did the conversion of "the father of Russian Marxism" to Marxism entail? A turn to the working class? But in his ZiV days Plekhanov had already turned to the working class, and so to an extent, though not systematically or exclusively, had ZiV.

What Plekhanov's conversation to Marxism would entail was a radical revision of the conception of the Russian revolution common to all the populists, who believed, in the peasant communes which held land in common, Russia already had the structures of an agrarian socialism.

It was a peculiar variant of utopian socialism. Where the typical West European utopian socialist of the mid 19th century believed in setting up in some wilderness - Etienne Cabet's grouping did it in Texas in the 1840s - small socialist colonies that, in the theory, would grow up side by side with capitalism and demonstrate their superiority over it, the Russian populist socialists believed that the Russian peasant commune and the mir, which involved many millions of peasants, constituted a giant socialist infrastructure that needed only to slough off the ruling class and the autocracy to constitute a fully socialist society.

The political groupings that existed in Russia at various times over the 30 years before the foundation of the first Marxist organisation in 1883 can be labelled in Western terms as anarchist, utopian-socialist, or Jacobin-Blanquist (those who saw the way forward as the seizure of state power). But all of them were distinguished from their equivalents in the West by the belief that in the peasant commune Russian socialism existed already, needing only to be freed from the ruling class.

This gave the socialism of even, for example, Alexander Herzen, who at the time of the emancipation of the serfs (1861) was in practice only a liberal, a solid social reality that distinguished them from both their utopian and reformist socialist equivalents in the West. Where a reformist socialist in the West was typically characterised by a failure to conceive of socialism as something wholly distinct from capitalism, even a mild populist socialist in Russia saw an existing socialism in the mir and counterposed it to the elements of capitalism that were taking root in the country.

Typically the populist socialists saw the emergence of capitalism in Russia as a direct and urgent threat to this, so to speak, "already existing" socialism. They believed, and some of them expressed it in those words, that, if the destruction of the peasant commune by the burgeoning market relations that appeared after the abolition of serfdom in 1861 was not to wipe out the peasant socialist commune, the revolution in Russia had to come "soon or never".

Marx himself was an admirer of Narodnaya Volya. He wrote this about the regicides on trial for killing the Tsar:

"They are sterling people through and through, without a melodramatic pose, simple, businesslike, heroic... They try to teach Europe that their modus operandi is a specifically Russian and historically inevitable matter about which there is no more reason to moralise - for or against - than there is about the earthquake of Chios".

The 1882 preface to the Communist Manifesto, co-signed by Marx and Engels but probably written by Engels, said:

"Now the question is: can the Russian obshchina, though greatly undermined, yet a form of the primeval common ownership of land, pass directly to the higher form of communist common ownership? Or on the contrary, must it first pass through the same process of dissolution as constitutes the historical evolution of the West?

"The only answer to that possible today is this: If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development".

The decisive shift by the founders in 1883 of the Group for the Emancipation of Labour - Plekhanov, Axelrod, Zasulich, Deutsch, and Ivanov (who died soon) - towards what we understand as Marxism consisted in their break from all variants of the populist view. On the one hand, they accepted that the triumph of capitalism in Russia was irreversible; on the other, they proclaimed that the socialist future of Russia, which led through a capitalism which was destroying the peasant commune, lay entirely in the hands of Russia's industrial proletariat. In consequence, they posed the practical goal of Russian socialists as the creation in Russia of a labour movement like those of Western Europe.

Many questions arose out of this orientation to the emerging Russian proletariat. For example, how would the working-class movement act during the Russian revolution against the autocracy, which, they believed, would be a bourgeois revolution that would put capital in political power? It would be their different answers to this question that would distinguish the future Mensheviks from the Bolsheviks, and Leon Trotsky from both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.

In his first "Marxist" work, Socialism and the Political Struggle (1883), Plekhanov would acknowledge the positive role which the turn of the majority of ZiV towards politics - terrorism to win a constitution - had played in breaking out of the cul de sac in which anti-political populism had, by 1879, trapped itself. While supporting their political - terrorist - struggle, he would now counterpose his "West European" views to their continued peasant populism.

We must look in some detail at the evolution of Plekhanov, Axelrod, Zasulich and the others, between their break with the majority of ZiV in June 1879 and the foundation of the Group for the Emancipation of Labour late in 1883.

The politicising majority of ZiV and the Plekhanovite populist old believers who resisted the turn to politics agreed that neither side would use the name ZiV. The majority thereafter called themselves Narodnaya Volya (the Will of the People), and the minority at the Voronyazh Congress, Cherny Peredel (literally, Black, that is peasant, Redistribution; more loosely, complete or total redistribution, that is, the division of all the land of Russia, of the landlords and the state, equally between the peasants).

It is one measure of how far Plekhanov had yet to travel that he would come to regard the programme embodied in the very name of Cherny Peredel as socially and economically regressive and reactionary, because it implied levelling down large-scale capitalist farming and replacing it with solely peasant cultivation.

In the still distant future, the Bolshevik government in 1918 would come into bloody conflict - on this question of the division of the land to the working peasants, among other issues - with the heirs of that populist programme, the Left SRs, who for a while after the October Revolution had formed a coalition government with the Bolsheviks, but objected to the retention by the new state of land on which to create state farms worked by wage labour.

One of the leaders of Narodnaya Volya, Morov, summed up the split in ZiV thus: "We divided up the very name of the former organisation. 'Total Redistribution' took over 'Land' while we took over the 'Freedom', and each fraction went its own way".

Very few joined Plekhanov's organisation, which declared itself the continuation of the old populism which had already shown its inadequacy to most of its former adherents. The terrorist turn to politics had come from that failure.

In a country without a parliament, without the right to free speech, free organisation, a free press or the liberty of the person, where official "politics" was never more than intrigues at the Tsarist court, terror was the only form of radical politics available.

Black Redistribution explained itself, and what it thought was wrong with the political turn:

"Political overturns never and nowhere could secure the people's economic and political liberty". They raised the slogan, "let the worker seize the factory and the peasant the land".

In fact Black Redistribution inherited the accumulated dead weight of populist failures to move the peasants. Most importantly for the future, Black Redistribution also "inherited" the lessons of the limited "success" of ZiV, among workers in the big towns. But that would not come into proper focus until after the founders of Black Redistribution had broken with the core beliefs of all the populists.

In 1879 the difference between Narodnya Volya and Black Redistribution was not in fundamental theory. Narodnaya Volya did not repudiate the aim of "rousing the people". The majority at the 1879 conference pledged that it would "lean on" the people and not the bourgeoisie. They, like the old ZiV and the Plekhanovite minority, were also still for agrarian terrorism, killing landlords and local officials in order to rouse the peasants to revolt, as well as terrorism against the central Tsarist state. It presented its terror as a form of agitation and "propaganda of the deed". As one of Narodnaya Volya's heroic fighters, Vera Figner, who would spend 25 years in a Tsarist jail, put it, terrorism was "an agitational medium of unprecedented strength".

Terror was action that small groups could undertake at will, thus seeming to free the revolutionaries from the dead weight of the "people", the peasants, who had proved to be immovable; and terror was also the line of least resistance in Russian society.

Large swathes of liberal opinion in the upper classes lauded the populists, saw their blows against tyrants as blows for the political demand they had in common with the terrorists - a constitution.

Like all political innovations that prove to be decisive shifts, the Narodnaya Volya seemed to incorporate the older movement and merely to add to it more effective methods of pursuing its old goals. They remained socialists. They were still champions of the socialist village commune against capitalism.

Narodnaya Volya's programme began: "In our basic conceptions we are socialists and populists". The difference was in their adoption of new means. On the other hand, as Vera Figner put it in retrospect: "We were not pursuing the abstract ultimate objectives of socialist doctrine but those demands and needs of the popular mind that in their essence included the socialist principle of liberty".

Though in practice their socialism had meaning only as the private, motivating, "ultimate" aim of Narodnaya Volya militants, they formulated the actual tasks of the political struggle which they concentrated on in terms of the psychology of the old anti-political and socialist movement from which they were breaking.

Narodnaya Volya declared that its terrorist activity had as its goals: "the undermining of the fascination of governmental power, the constant demonstration of the possibilities of struggle against the government, the elevation in this way of the revolutionary spirit of the people and its faith in the success of the cause, and, finally, the formation of forces fit for and accustomed to battle".

"The party", Narodnaya Volya declared, "must pay attention to the people not less seriously". But its "primary task... among the people is to prepare its cooperation [sic] in the overturn".

"In view of the oppression of the people, and since by means of special repression the government will be able to restrain the general revolutionary movement for a very long time, the party must assume the preparation of the overturn itself and not wait for a time when the people will be able to get along without it".

That was the inversion with a vengeance of the old going-to-the-people with socialist enlightenment or with the call of Zemlya i Volya for immediate mass revolution - the policy which Black Redistribution stuck to. Now small bands of heroes would substitute their actions for those of an unready, unwilling, and repressed people.

Thus do such movements evolve - by way of what they emphasise and concentrate on, and the consequent withering effects for those aspects of themselves that they do not, "for now", emphasise or practise. For practical purposes Narodnaya Volya expressed only the demand for a bourgeois constitution.

It raised the political demand that would serve all the revolutionary tendencies, except the anarchists, until 1917 - the convocation of a Constituent Assembly, elected by universal suffrage.

Vera Figner summed it up in retrospect, in 1925:

"Terror in and for itself was never the aim of the party. It was a means of defence, self-defence, and was considered a powerful medium of agitation... Regicide entered this category as a detail... Organisational and propagandist activity always went hand in hand with the war of destruction". But, she says:

"As the struggle grew more heated, as time passed and one magnificent exploit after another was conceived and executed by us, the former activity among the people grew diminished in their eyes; the countryside receded into the distance, that part of the programme... that spoke of the activity in the countryside gradually took on a purely theoretical, rhetorical character".

Narodnaya Volya's strength was in the fact that, where everything else had failed, the small bands of terrorists could succeed - and, with the killing of the Tsar in March 1881, succeed spectacularly.

Their greatest success, the violent deposition of the Tsar, would also reveal how weak such methods were against the whole system they opposed, how little fundamental could be changed by the changes in leading personnel which were all their infliction of justice on tyrants with guns and bombs could achieve.

But in the immediate competition between Narodnaya Volya and Black Redistribution, the immediate success was all-important. In terms of practical activity, Black Redistribution could do nothing. Its members either fell into inactivity, or defected to Narodnaya Volya. Black Redistribution was stillborn. There was historical justice in that, because, as Plekhanov would later stress, Narodnaya Volya had shot ahead of them in the necessary turn to politics.

The death of the Tsar did not unleash mass revolution as some of them had hoped. Six Narodnaya Volya members were condemned to death for killing the Tsar, two of them women. Five were hanged. The sixth, Gesya Helfman, was held from the gallows so that she could give birth to the baby she was carrying. Immediately afterwards she died in jail.

After the killing of the Tsar, the executive of Narodnaya Volya wrote an open letter to the new Tsar in which they made only two demands on him:
1. A general political amnesty;
2. Convocation of representatives of the people.
Its "moderation" won it the sympathy of "liberal society" in Russia and abroad. It was also a measure of how they had moved from the socialist programme of ZiV - and indeed from their own programme. They now, despite what the 1879 programme had said about leaning on the people, aligned with their natural political allies, bourgeois and liberal aristocrats. In fact, though Narodnaya Volya continued to exist and published a journal in exile, edited by Peter Lavrov, the repression had essentially smashed the group.

In all this Black Redistribution and its leaders had been politically marginalised. They expressed support for Narodnaya Volya and solidarised with its militants. So did Karl Marx.

They moved only slowly on to the new political ground which they had rejected on principle in 1879 - and towards the foundation of the first non-populist Marxist movement in Russia, the Group of the Emancipation of Labour, in September 1883.

Central to the group's theoretical evolution was the existence of a strong working-class movement in Europe and the new and growing working class in Russia. Although politically it was still entwined with the populist movement, including ZiV, the Russian proletariat had already taken action as a distinct class and incipiently as a distinct political force. In the next instalment we will discuss the beginnings of working-class action in Russia.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.