Marxism in Tsarist Russia

From Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2014), Kindle Loc. 345-371:

Marx’s Capital had been published in Russia as early as 1872. It was the book’s first foreign publication, just five years after the original German edition and fifteen years before its appearance in English. The tsarist censors had passed it by mistake, assuming that ‘very few people in Russia’ would read the heavy tome of political economy, and ‘even fewer understand it’. Contrary to expectations, Marx’s critique of the capitalist system would lead to revolution earlier in Russia than in any of the Western societies to which it had been addressed.

The intelligentsia were drawn to Marxism by its ‘scientific’ nature—it was seen as a ‘path of reason’, in the words of Lydia Dan, offering ‘objective solutions’ to the misery of poverty and backwardness—and by its promise that Russia would become more like the capitalist West. ‘We were attracted by its European nature,’ recalled a veteran of the movement in Russia. ‘Marxism came from Europe. It did not smell and taste of home-grown mould and provincialism, but was new, fresh, and exciting. Marxism held out a promise that we would not stay a semi-Asiatic country, but would become part of the West with its culture, institutions and attributes of a free political system. The West was our guiding light.’

Here perhaps was the root of Marxism’s attraction to the Jews, who played such a conspicuous role in the Social Democratic movement, providing many of its leaders (Trotsky, Martov, Axelrod, Kamenev and Zinoviev, to name just a few). Where Populism had proposed to build on peasant Russia—a land of pogroms and discrimination against the Jews—Marxism offered a modern Western vision of Russia. It promised to assimilate the Jews into a movement of universal human liberation—not just the liberation of the peasantry—based on principles of internationalism.

Even the young Lenin only became fully converted to the Marxist mainstream in the wake of the famine crisis. Contrary to the Soviet myth, in which Lenin appeared as a fully fledged Marxist theorist in his infancy, the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution came late to politics. In his last school year he was commended by his headmaster (by an irony of fate the father of Kerensky, his arch-rival in 1917) as a model student, ‘moral and religious in his upbringing’, and never giving ‘cause for dissatisfaction, by word or deed, to the school authorities’.

Lenin’s father was a typical gentleman-liberal of the type his son would come to despise. His noble background was a source of embarrassment to Lenin’s Soviet hagiographers. But it was a key to his domineering personality. It can be seen in his intolerance of criticism from subordinates, and his tendency to look upon the masses as no more than human material needed for his revolutionary plans (during the famine he argued that the peasants should be denied aid because it would make a revolution more likely). As Maxim Gorky wrote in 1917, ‘Lenin is a “leader” and a Russian nobleman, not without certain psychological traits of this extinct class, and therefore he considers himself justified in performing with the Russian people a cruel experiment which is doomed to failure beforehand.’

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Filed under democracy, education, nationalism, philosophy, Russia, USSR

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