Marx and Engels on the possibility of Russian communism

Last week, I read an article by Michael Löwy taking a look at the relevance of the Communist Manifesto at its 150th anniversary. Löwy, a Marxist, wrote that in some ways the Manifesto was too cautious. Here was one of his points that caught my interest:

Nevertheless, the brilliant—and prophetic—analysis of capitalist globalization sketched out in the initial pages of the Manifesto suffers from certain limitations, tensions, or contradictions. These do not stem from an excess of revolutionary zeal, as most critiques of Marxism contends, but, on the contrary, from an insufficiently critical stance in regard to modern bourgeois/industrial civilization. Let us look at several of the closely interlinked aspects of that stance.

1. The ideology of progress typical of the nineteenth-century show ups in the visiblyEurocentric way in which Marx and Engels express their admiration for the capacity of the bourgeoisie to “draw all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization”: thanks to its cheap commodities “it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate” (a transparent reference to China). They seem to consider western colonial domination as an expression of the bourgeoisie’s historical “civilizing” role: this class “has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilized ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West.” The sole restriction on this Eurocentric, not to say colonialist, distinction between “civilized” and “barbarian” nations is the phrase “what it calls civilization” (sogennante Zivilisation) with reference to the western bourgeois world.

In his later writing Marx was to take a much more critical stance in regard to western colonialism in India and China, but it would remain for the modern theoreticians of imperialism—Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin—to formulate a radical Marxist challenge to “bourgeois civilization” from the point of view of its victims, namely the colonized peoples. And only with Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution would emerge the heretical idea that socialist revolutions would be most likely to begin in the periphery of the system, the dependent countries. Of course, the founder of the Red Army insisted on the additional point that unless the revolution would spread to the advanced industrial centers—notably of western Europe—it would sooner or later be condemned to failure. It is often forgotten that, in their preface to the Russian translation of the Manifesto (1881), Marx and Engels envisaged a hypothetical situation in which the socialist revolution would begin in Russia—on the basis of traditional peasant collectivism—and then spread to western Europe. The Russian revolution, would according to their words, become a signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other. This text—as well as a contemporary letter to Vera Zasunch—reply in advance to the supposedly “orthodox Marxist” arguments of the Kautskys and Plekhanovs against the “voluntarism” of the October Revolution of 1917—arguments that today have again become fashionable after the end of the U.S.S.R.—according to which a socialist revolution is only possible where the productive forces have reached “maturity,” which is to say in the advanced capitalist countries.

Here is what Marx and Engels said about Russia in the translation of that introduction available at Marxists.org (it actually appears to have been written in 1882):

And now Russia! During the Revolution of 1848-9, not only the European princes, but the European bourgeois as well, found their only salvation from the proletariat just beginning to awaken in Russian intervention. The Tsar was proclaimed the chief of European reaction. Today, he is a prisoner of war of the revolution in Gatchina [B], and Russia forms the vanguard of revolutionary action in Europe.

The Communist Manifesto had, as its object, the proclamation of the inevitable impending dissolution of modern bourgeois property. But in Russia we find, face-to-face with the rapidly flowering capitalist swindle and bourgeois property, just beginning to develop, more than half the land owned in common by the peasants. Now the question is: can the Russian obshchina, though greatly undermined, yet a form of 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 such 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.

They also wrote about the importance of the United States’ emergence as an industrial power in their brief introduction.

I’m certainly not a Marxist, but I think it’s interesting to see some of the historical developments in Marxist thought.

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