Rădăcinile bolșevismului: o perspectivă ideologică asupra intelighenției ruse din secolul al XIX-lea (Roots of Bolshevism: An Ideological Overview of the 19th Century Russian Intelligentsia)




Rădăcinile bolșevismului: o perspectivă ideologică asupra intelighenției ruse din secolul al XIX-lea

(Roots of Bolshevism: An Ideological Overview of the 19th Century Russian Intelligentsia)





Abstract: The present article generally aims to prove that Bolshevism had very little to do with European social-democracy. They are two distinct intellectual and political traditions, although the influence of the latter upon the former cannot be denied. To confirm this hypothesis, the main part of the article consists in a diachronic analysis of the ideas of the Russian intelligentsia, the nursery of the future Bolshevik dictatorship, starting with its humanist origins and ending with its terrorist degeneration. For a better understanding of the origins of Russian populism, the first part of the article presents the Marxist origins of European social-democracy. The research methods I made use of are political comparative analysis and ideological analysis.


Key words: Enlightenment, social-democracy, populism, nihilism, terrorism, dictatorship.



European social-democracy: an offspring of Enlightenment


The struggle for social emancipation is a product of Enlightenment and of the liberal philosophy which it gave birth to[1]. Republicanism, democracy, human rights, universal suffrage, individuality, free market[2] – all of these invaluable achievements reflect the imposition of the modern era with its growing urbanization, extended commerce, secularization and a major emphasis on human reason. However, after several decades it became rather clear that the above mentioned gains were not universal, as the French revolutionaries postulated them, but confined to a certain social category, namely the rising bourgeoisie. The industrial revolution that made modern Europe possible thrived on slavery and barbarous exploitation of other continents[3]; later, as slavery was increasingly difficult to maintain due to uprisings, the emancipation of public opinion and most importantly because of the technological advancement that allowed former slave owners to become respected businessmen and former slaves to become employees without any decrease in profits, on the contrary – one of modernity’s promises, human rights and individual dignity, was therefore fulfilled. Not without major conflicts (if we take into account only the American civil war), but essentially going along with the historic tide: slavery was abolished after it begun to hamper the profits of major European and American companies, not as a direct consequence of Enlightenment’s ideals[4].

Could the promises of modernity such as liberty and equality be extended also to peasants and industrial workers and not be confined exclusively to the bourgeoisie? Could they become truly universal? This was the main question of some intellectuals later labeled as the utopian socialists. Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, Robert Owen, all of them imagined perfect communities where social conflicts would be abolished by means of grassroots democracy and an emphasis placed on public property understood as the antidote of private property that tended to dismantle the social texture and entail abuses and exploitation[5]. They received the label ‘utopian’ because their revolt was purely moral.

‘Scientific socialism’ on the other hand, the one Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels pretended to discover – affirmed that the growing inequalities between the capitalists who own the means of production and the workers who do not will eventually led to the disintegration of the capitalist mode of production. This was, in their opinion, a scientific fact: the internal logic of capitalism is based on accumulation, profit, and the exploitation of unpaid labor. As the concentration tendencies of capital amplify, meaning the big businesses getting bigger by incorporating or eliminating potential rivals – the number of capitalists decreases (as they became richer) while the number of workers which fuel profit making for their bosses increases, as they become poorer. This contradiction will sooner or later lead to an explosive tension and thus bring about a social revolution that will end capitalism and its unjust social stratification. This outcome was for Marx inevitable and therefore scientific. The historic laws of social development which he pretended to discover were embodied in the political economy of every stage humanity had passed through: primitive commune, antiquity, feudalism and capitalism. They consisted in forces of production and relations of production. The firs signified inventions or goods that the community or society benefited from mostly free and which entailed progress and welfare. Gradually, those inventions or goods came to be monopolized by a ruling class which pretended a certain price for them. Their production and reproduction, dominated by the ruling class, created patterns of economic and social stratification based on inequality and polarization, patterns which deemed property more and more private, in accordance with the interests of the ruling class. This status-quo was given a legal form and, from generation to generation, was regarded by society as being fair and natural. Marx called this status-quo relations of production. When the relations of production became increasingly oppressive, obstructing progress and well-being to the point that most people considered it intolerable, a social revolution occurred, releasing the structural tensions that have build up. Afterwards, the whole process would start all over again, the new forces of production becoming relations of production and so on. This materialistic philosophy of history offered the dialectic method as a tool for understanding the passing from one mode of production (the material dimension of a certain type of society in general, in Marx’s terms) to another. Thus the primitive commune gave way to antiquity, antiquity to feudalism and feudalism to capitalism[6].

Taking into account history’s dialectic, capitalism already contained the ‘germs’ of its future replacement, communism. Here, relations of production are codified in legal terms as private property, while the increasing forces of production, the workers, find themselves deprived of the means of production. As progressive it was at the beginning, when it replaced feudalism, capitalism, Marx argued, no longer facilitated social progress, but disrupted it. Why? Because capitalism’s core consists in a neverending succession of economic and social crises. By working, the proletarians create surplus-value, namely the difference between their salary and the total income the capitalist extracts from their work. The objective value of a product resides in the socially necessary work time needed to create that product. Since the capitalist seeks only profit, he will rely more and more on machines instead of workers. This means more and cheaper goods. But an increased productivity also means less valuable products: the time spent creating each product decreases proportionally with the number of machines that replace the worker. What follows is an abundance of cheap goods. But this is nevertheless a signal of the crisis which is to come. Marx argues that only workers can create surplus value; for the capitalist, workers represent the variable capital (their number fluctuates according to the needs of the business), while the machines represent the constant capital (meaning that they cannot be fired or hired as easy as the proletarians; moreover, machines cannot create themselves goods, in the absence of human intervention; they can only transmit a small part of their utility to the final product, proportional with their deterioration during the time spent forging it – this is the reason why Marx does not credit technology with the power to create surplus-value). By increasing the share of constant capital in order to raise productivity and sell cheaper goods, the capitalist is driven not only by its greed, but also by its creditors, most of them banks. Therefore he is forced by a structural mechanism to behave in this way; it is not a matter of simple choice, as utopian socialists would consider. Machines, bought with expensive loans, gradually replace workers; they do the job much faster and with incomparable efficiency. Salaries decreases and unemployment rises (this wave of unemployment is called by Marx the ‘proletarian reserve army’). The remaining workers are compelled to accept lower salaries or face the prospect of unemployment. Cheap goods are everywhere, but fewer and fewer people buy them: many have lost their jobs. We are now in the middle of an overproduction crisis. Having lost its clients, the capitalist goes bankrupt, thus leading to more unemployment and the bankruptcy of other capitalists as well. Banks can no longer recuperate their loans, not to mention their interest rates. The resulting general collapse can be compared to a forest fire: after it passes, the forest is regenerated. But this regeneration, brought about with the same capitalist means, will implacable lead to the next fire and so on, until the contradiction between forces and relations of production (proletarians and workers) will entails such a massive breakdown that capitalism itself could no longer start over again. Finally controlling the means of production (factories), the workers victory would signal the appearance of a class free society in which economy is no longer driven by money and profits, but by man and for man[7].

One can observe that in Marx’s terms, there can be no reconcilement between work and capital: what he calls ‘the general law of capitalist accumulation’ is very clear in this respect: the capital’s prosperity is proportional to the growing of the ‘proletarian reserve army’[8]. In other words, capital and social conflict go hand in hand. Before publishing his magnum opus in 1867, Marx attempted to explain the demise of capitalism through another, simpler contradiction, that between utility and exchange value. For consumers, the commodity possesses utility, while for capitalists it possesses only exchange value, which is nevertheless the distinctive feature of commodity. But, in the process of getting from its producer to its consumer, which is interested exclusively in its utility, the commodity must pass an intermediary phase where it acquires exchange value: the market. The market is therefore a capitalist contradiction between producers and consumers. It does not facilitate social prosperity, only intermediary and parasitic profits. Social revolution means here getting rid of the market, the exchange values and the commodity itself, an inherent feature of the capitalist system[9].

            Capitalism entails structural contradictions and cannot be abolished only through moral means. A moral capitalist is a contradiction in itself: if he decides to increase salaries and the sums paid for the social insurance of his workers, he will also need to increase the price of his products in order to survive; selling his merchandise at the same price he practiced before applying these measures would mean a decrease in profits and finally bankruptcy. But a higher price for his goods means that he will slowly loose competitiveness on the market: immoral entrepreneurs can afford to sell their commodities cheaper because they spend less money with they employees. The outcome in this case is also bankruptcy. Either way, Marx argues, capitalism is a social relation inscribed in things and in the material processes that constitute our day to day life: it does not exist only in our mind and therefore it cannot be replaced through good deeds alone: an approach like this can only enforce the system. This is why the social revolution is indispensable for the real overthrowing of capitalism; its mere moral ‘taming’ leads nowhere. However, capitalism’s domination cannot be reduced to materialism, although this constitutes its backbone: ‘The ideas of the dominant class are in every epoch the dominant ideas, which means that the class which is the dominant material force of society is at the same time its dominant spiritual force’[10].

            To sum up, Marx’s revolution is first of all social, only afterwards political and cultural. Only the working class, numerically and technically fueled by capitalism itself – can accomplish the revolution by developing ‘class consciousnesses’. In this process, the role of intellectuals as guides is very important, but these intellectuals could never replace the proletarians in the revolutionary process. We are far from the Leninist party with its sectarian and conspirative behavior and with its dictatorial means. Also, for Marx proletarians are not only the factory workers, but virtually everyone who depends on a salary for a living, a salary delivered first of all by particular employers. What Marx eventually wanted was a larger and more profound democracy than the bourgeoisie had to offer: human rights and individual freedom cannot exist in a polarized society in which workers are compelled to sell their physical and intellectual capacities in order to survive: work should mean creativity, joy and fulfillment, not mind-numbing exhaustion, permanent stress and fear of losing one’s job: each men should work for its own purpose, not for the purpose of capitalist intermediary gains. But this outcome Marx rendered possible only in a post-capitalist world, where workers would benefit from their products, not being alienated with reference to them and where the social stratification entailed by the capitalist mode of production would cease to exist.

            From its Marxist form, European social-democracy gradually gave way to a progressive rapprochement with the Enlightenment ideals from which it was born: democracy and human rights.  Karl Kautsky, Eduard Bernstein and other second generation Marxists which’s ideas will be analyzed in the conclusions section are proof in this regard. The 19th century Russian revolutionary ferment cannot be properly understood in the absence of its European model, which it tried to emulate sometimes beyond the point of recognition. But unlike it, it will gradually move away from the humanism of Enlightenment, preparing the ideological and political ground from which Bolshevism was born.


Populism, nihilism, terrorism, Marxism: ideological stages of the Russian revolutionary movement


Intellectually speaking, Russia’s encounter with modernity had begun with Georg Friedrich Hegel’s philosophy. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis, dialectics, reconciliation of opposites, reason – all these concepts advanced or re-elaborated by the German philosopher highly influenced not only intellectual and social emancipation movements such as social-democracy, but the whole modern phenomenon[11]. Hegel’s famous sentence ‘the real is the rational and the rational is the real’ received a conservative interpretation in his native Germany, where it came to signify the praising of the exiting political status-quo, namely the Prussian absolutist monarchy. In Tsarist Russia, on the other hand, his maxim gained a whole different, revolutionary meaning: the real had to be rationalized. This meant the abolishment of autocracy and the institution of a democratic republic according to the principles of Enlightenment[12].

            The first organized movement against Tsarist autocracy was that of the so-called Decembrists, a group of officers inspired by the French Revolution who sought to replace the existent Russian political structure with that of a constitutional republic. In December 1825, after an open revolt against the new Tsar, Nicholas, their leaders were hanged and the group dismantled[13]. Although the first serious contestation against Tsarism, the Decembrist’s revolt was first of all a political movement; the populist movement which followed placed most of its emphasis on revolutionary ideas, hoping to create a social awareness capable of emancipating peasant Russia from the oppressing autocracy.

            Vissarion Belinski, a literary critic highly influenced by Hegel’s philosophy, is counted today as one of the founding fathers of Russian intelligentsia. Morality, the permanent quest for truth and regarding individuality and human dignity as the sole basis of a successful intellectual, social and political reform, Belinski’s romantic temper and oratory brilliance is well remembered by his friend and colleague Alexander Herzen. Unlike Belinski, who’s essentially liberal ideas were completed by social-democratic tendencies (he evaluated literary works on the count of exposing the precarious condition of peasantry and the intrinsically unjust structure of Tsarism)[14], Herzen, acknowledged even by Lenin[15], although their ideas were not at all compatible – as the first truly Russian populist – developed vivid and original social-democratic theories.

            Although Herzen influenced not only the development of Russian socialism, but that of liberalism as well, the two ideologies are mixed in his works sometimes beyond the point of recognition. He held individual freedom above all other values, although criticizing the bourgeois West whenever its governments obliterated social emancipation, like in 1848. ‘Despite his aesthetic dislike of the bourgeois West, he was a good European, at least insofar as prizing individualism and rejecting the use of violence before exhausting all the possibilities of persuasion and peaceful alteration’[16]. Like all populists, Herzen valued the peasant commune and insisted that Russia could achieve its own, specific democracy by abolishing Tsarism and creating a federative political structure between these communes. He therefore advocated for a sort of peasant grassroots democracy which, unlike Western Europe, could advance toward socialism avoiding the terrible social consequences the development of capitalism caused there. Most importantly, Herzen believed in this yet passive existence of rural democracy and its capacity to be spontaneously transferred to the entire Russian political system[17].

            More radical in his youth, Herzen gradually renounced prospects of violent revolution and insisted upon reforms, from above and also from below, as the key to social transformation[18]. However, he never became a convinced supporter of pluripartidism; after the crushing of the 1848 revolutions he sincerely hoped ‘Europe had figured out that the representative system is nothing more than an ingenious means to replace the satisfaction of social requests and determined action with empty words and endless debates’[19].

            Herzen’s rejection of all forms of intellectual and political dogmatism or authoritarianism made him lots of enemies, among which Karl Marx. Marx’s expeditious and abrupt personality, along with his deterministic philosophy of history was something Herzen could not reconcile with, especially because he shared Alexis de Tocqueville’s opinion that industrialization will not radicalize and organize workers towards revolutionary aims, but improve their life style thus transforming them into bourgeois. In Adam Ulam’s words, ‘Marx was for him the embodiment of the German bourgeois spirit: formal, unromantic, and devoid of those elements of humor and compassion that he deemed essential for a real fighter for the people’s rights. The news that Marx was to address or even to attend a political gathering or banquet was cause enough for Herzen to send his excuses’[20]. Unlike Marxists, who stood in favor of revolution, not reforms (see the first section of the article), Herzen argued for ‘gradual progress’ as means of social emancipation.


            I am not at all afraid of the word ‘gradual progress’, which was trivialized through the undecided attitude and reluctant steps of different reforming authorities. The gradual character, as continuity, are tightly connected to any process of understanding. Mathematics is learned progressively; why believe that the ultimate conclusions of sociology could be injected to a man like the vaccine against smallpox or poured into mind as a medicine is poured as once on the horse’s throat? Between the actual conclusions and the actual situation there are practical improvements, there are ways, compromises and diagonals. To choose the most short, comfortable, accessible ones is a problem of practical sense, of strategy. Going permanently ahead, without looking back, you can end up like Napoleon, to Moscow, and perish afterwards during the retreat, even without reaching Borodino. The international association of workers and their other associations, their organs and representatives must strive hardly that authorities do not interfere in work relating problems, as they do not interfere in the administration of properties. The forms which held people in the chains of a semi-imposed slavery will not resist a la longue to the pressure exercised by logic and by the development of public consciousness. Some of them are so rotten inside that you can strike them down with a kick; others maintain themselves, plunging their roots like a cancer in a bad blood. By crushing them altogether, we could also kill the organism and we would certainly make the great majority to step down and then the most fierce defenders of the ‘cancer’ will be exactly those who suffer the most from it. Of course this would be something very stupid, but it is time to understand that stupidity represents an enourmous force that has to be taken into account[21].


            And furthermore:


            A wild eruption, caused by constant obstacle, will not spare anything: to redeem personal deprivations, revenge will come upon the most impersonal goods. Together with the capital gathered by moneylenders, another capital will perish, transmitted from generation to generation, from a people to another, a capital which contains the essence of the personality and of creation of different ages, a capital in which was naturally inscribed the chronicle of human life and in which history has been crystallized. Along with the milestones, the destructive force unleashed will also crush the heights which people have reached through endless efforts in all domains, from the beginning of civilization until now[22].


            Herzen’s moderation, erudition, toleration and authentic concern for a gradual emancipation that would preserve the gains of civilization, not relinquish them as obsolete and hypocrite bourgeois achievements – will transform him into an outdated and even ridiculous figure for a newer and more radical generation of populists, the nihilists. Young, more or less educated young men and women, the nihilists were disappointed by Herzen’s teachings which did not help the peasants free themselves from autocracy. In their opinion, more was needed: a revolutionary elite who would organize, discipline and even accomplish the revolution for the peasants[23]. Considering ‘Herzen’s socialism was too humanistic, too much grounded in the hope of change by evolution’[24], they did not hesitate to attack the founder of Russian socialism in writing, calling him a ‘liberal’ (among the intelligentsia, the term started to have a pejorative nuance in the second half of the 19th century), a right-winger and a supporter of the ‘reaction’. Herzen replied with disappointment ‘that the attacks upon him and his position served the interests of the most reactionary part of the tsarist bureaucracy, and that the young radicals might live to be decorated by the government’[25].

            Nihilism, a label which the famous novelist Turgenev used to describe the new wave of populism and it was readily adopted some of its most representative members – still considered themselves Marxists, despite the numerous doctrinary incongruences with Marxism which will come into open a generation later[26]. The young rebels made use of a ‘correct radical style in dress, speech and general attitude’, of equal importance for them as their ideology. Nihilists usually were condescending in their speeches and conversations and displayed a ‘casual attitude towards dress and appearance, if not downright eccentricity’ which created a sober and austere impression. Nihilist women were highly emancipated for that period, wearing ‘short hair, drab clothing’, smoking and going to all kind of public spectacles. ‘Nihilists denied not only the traditional role of women, but also the family, property, religion, art – in a word, all of the traditional aspects of culture and society’. It was this vehement denial the ‘conservative press’ indefatigable condemned and ridiculed that they owe their name to[27].

            Perhaps the best known nihilist was Dmitri Pisarev, a young literary critic. Striving to replace the humanistic materialism of Belinski and Herzen with a presumably Marxist scientific materialism, Pisarev insisted upon ‘rational agriculture’ as a means of advancement towards social prosperity and civilization, a goal obliterated by the ruling elites who did not benefited from the emancipation of the ‘masses’[28]. Rationality in general, not only in agricultural matters, was to be achieved through a proper education in natural sciences[29]. Following the positivist trend of the epoch, Pisarev insisted that social sciences will someday achieve the precision of natural sciences and help bring about the inevitable revolution. ‘It is very natural for astronomy and chemistry to have left long ago the fog of fantasy babbling, while social and economic doctrines still resemble the characteristic modes of astrology, chemistry, magic and obsolete theosophy. It is very likely that these cabalistic theories will someday mold themselves in pure scientific forms and in time influence practical life’, Pisarev firmly wrote[30].

            Another influential nihilist was Nikolay Chernyshevsky. His well-known novel, What is to be done?, which’s title was borrowed by Lenin half a century later for a not less known political strategy book – became a sort of Bible for the nihilist generation. The novel, not exactly exceeding in literary qualities, presents the story of a young woman, Vera Pavlovna, which got married and ran away only to escape her parents plan to marry someone who she did not love. Her husband, the young nihilist doctor Lopuhov, helps her start a tailor shop organized on egalitarian, socialist bases. The shop prospers, but Vera realizes she fell in love with Lopuhov’s best friend, Kirsanov. Proving an inflexible rationality, Lopuhov stages a fake suicide, allowing his wife and friend to form a couple. In a few years, he returns under a fake identity, marries someone else and maintains a close friendship with his former wife and her husband. Briefly, the figure of a fanatical, ascetic revolutionary appears that of Rahmetov[31], an incarnation of the ‘new man’ the nihilists treasured: highly devoted to his work, his personal interest coinciding with the public interest and his reason being in perfect harmony with his passions[32]. Considered by Adam Ulam ‘the real source of Bolshevism’ and ‘an ancestor of Soviet socialist realism’, Chernyshevsky took great precautions to conceal his political activity, using fake names and camouglaging as much as possible his ties with the revolutionary groups. Even so, he was arrested in 1862, after a series of devastating fires that ravaged Moscow and were thought to be the work of nihilists. Two years after, he was condemned to seven years o hard labor and exiled, being allowed to return to European Russia only after nineteen years[33].

            The end of the 1860s witnessed the progressive decay of nihilism. Mikhail Bakunin, a renowned Russian anarchist living abroad and hostile to Marx as well as, to a certain extent, to Herzen, arguing for an immediate and total revolution to abolish first of all the state, along with all other aspects of a civilization that only hampered humanity’s emancipation potential – befriended with Sergei Nechayev, a former school teacher who attempted to create a revolutionary organization in Russia. They wrote together The Revolutionary Catechism, portraying the ‘revolutionary’ as a ‘doomed man’ who ‘knows only one science, the science of destruction’. This was no longer nihilism, but terrorism. Nechayev was soon to be arrested for the murder of a ‘cell member’ he considered to by a spy. The whole affair inspired Dostoevsky to write his famous novel, The Possessed[34]. The next decade gave birth to intransigent and ruthless revolutionaries like Petr Tkachev who did not hesitate to contradict and ridicule Engels himself for expressing reservations regarding his rudimentary methods and emphasis placed on peasantry as the key to the future Russian revolution if guided by a small and determined revolutionary elite[35] – but also to a ‘mass movement’ which remained in history under the name ‘going to the people’. Herzen’s slogan, ‘To the people!’, inspired ‘hundreds of young people, girls as well as men’, to go into the countryside and spread ‘revolutionary ideas’ among the peasants. ‘No immediate results were achieved. Some peasants listened with sympathy, many were hostile, and most understood hardly anything of what they heard. The preachers were extremely conspicuous, and soon they were rounded up by the police’. 1611 arrests were made between 1873 and 1877, but ‘only a minority received prison sentences’. However, ‘many of those who were acquitted were afterwards deported by the police to remote provinces of European Russia and Siberia’ as ‘administrative exiles’[36].

            Despite the police’s efforts, not all the agitators could be arrested. The ones who escaped formed in 1874 the direct ancestor of the Bolshevik Party, Zemlea i Volya (Land and Liberty). Thoroughly organized around a ‘basic circle’ – all the local groups responded to it and it consisted from an administrative section (propaganda and ‘providing false papers for persons living illegally’), a second section responsible for relations with intelligentsia, another section for strengthening ties with urban workers and another one for agitation among peasants. The final and soon to become the most important section ‘was known as the “disorganizing section”, and was concerned with the rescue from prison of arrested comrades, assassination of government officials as reprisals for maltreatment of revolutionaries, and the detection and punishment of traitors or police spies’[37]. Zemlea I Volya failed to carry the revolutionary message to the peasants, recruiting more proselytes among the poor factory workers of small cities. The growing reliance on terrorist tactics and political assassinations prompted in 1879 a split within the organization. Georgi Plekhanov, the only authentic Russian Marxist theorist, along with the future Menshevik Pavel Axelrod, formed a new group, named Chorny Peredyel (Black Partition), which was against terrorist tactics and stressed the importance of peasants rather than workers for the social emancipation of Tsarist Russia; on the other hand, ‘The politically minded terrorists took the name People’s will (Narodnaya Volya), and made the assassination of the Tsar their main aim’. After a series of failed attempts, they will finally succeed in 1881[38]. But this outcome will also entail the political and also physical destruction of Narodnaya Volya, only several years after. During 1881 and 1894, 5851 people were arrested for connections with Narodnaya Volya, 27 executed and 342 received jail sentences or were exiled to labor camps. The rest manage obtain milder sentences[39]. But the intellectual and political movement that started with Herzen’s populist humanist, became increasingly radicalized with Pisarev and Chernyshevsky’s nihilism and finally degenerated into plain terrorism with the Zemlea y Volya and especially Narodnaya Volya movements was finally over.

            Among the Russian intelligentsia, Georgi Plekhanov was, as mentioned above, the single truly Marxist theorist. This may seem a bit odd for someone who placed the peasants above factory workers within the Russian revolutionary process, but Plekhanov was no populist: he simply argued, along with Marx, that the abolition of serfdom in 1861 pushed Russia, slowly, but surely, on the path of capitalist development. Peasants were to become workers, only after this metamorphosis could they accomplish the revolution. Populists, as we remember, strongly believed that Russia could avoid the capitalist phase and plunge directly into a peasant based socialism[40]. This is why Plekhanov strongly criticized populists for having not understood the scientific course of history, while in the same time acknowledging their important contributions to the revolutionary struggle. No revolutionary elite could ever replace the proletariat during the emancipatory task, and no isolated terrorist act or conspiracy could ever be considered part of a real ‘class-struggle’[41]. For him, even Herzen was a ‘semi-Slavophil’ because he insisted on a unique path of development for Russia which din not imply the capitalist stage[42]. Drawing a sharp distinction between Marxists and populists, Plekhanov stated:


            The distinction between us resides in the fact that, while the development of the actual economic relations estranges you more and more from your rural community ideals, we, due to the same development, we are getting more and more close to our communist ideals. You are like a man which, wanting to go north, got up in a train which takes him south; but we know our road and ride the historic train, which takes us full speed ahead to our goal. But you are surprised by our orientation, because you believe a socialist cannot look upon the development of the bourgeois mode of production with sympathy. But this is due to the fact that your logic is highly vernacular.

            You imagine that a socialist who wants to stay true to his ideals must hamper, everywhere, the development of capitalism. This time as well you reason in the most primitive way; to hamper the development of capitalism, you say, means to prejudice the interests of the entrepreneurs; and because their interests are diametrically opposed to the interests of the workers, everything that damages capitalism benefits work. You do not even suspect that capitalism is opposed not only to the link which follows it in the chain of historic development, but also to the one that precedes it, that it fights not only against the revolutionary attempts of the proletariat, but also against the reactionary tendencies of nobility and of the petite bourgeoisie. You hate capital to death and are ready to attack it wherever and whenever. This zeal often makes you look with sympathy upon those defeats of capitalism that can benefit only to the reactionaries. In this case, the program of your ‘Russian’ ‘socialism’ coincides with the program of the German ‘social-conservatives’ and not a trace is left of its progressive tendencies. In order to avoid such pathetic metamorphoses you must, finally, appropriate the dialectic conception of history. You must support capitalism in its struggle against reaction and in the same time be the arch enemies of capitalism regarding its struggle against the future workers revolution. Only such a program is worthy of a party which considers itself the representative of the most progressive aspirations of its time. To situate yourself on this point of view you must abandon your actual intermediary position between different classes and fuse with the workers[43].


            Plekhanov’s writings is what compelled Russian socialists to make the distinction between populism and Marxism[44], although Marx was well known and appreciated within Russia especially since his major work, the first volume of the Capital, was published in Moscow in 1872. Curiously enough, although Marx’s previous books were banned from the Tsarist Empire, the censors were certain that this time the dimensions of the volume and the dense and difficult prose would discourage potential readers[45]. But until 1884, when not only Marx’s but Adam Smith’s books as well were ‘banned from public libraries’[46], it was already too late. The book was a major success, selling 3000 copies over a year, while the German first edition of 1000 copies was sold in five years. Dialectically enough, ‘Slavophiles and Populists both welcomed the book as an exposé of the horrors of the Western capitalist system, which they wanted Russia to avoid’[47].

            At the end of the 19th century, the Russian revolutionary movement lost in strength but gained in diversity. Populism was resuscitated by the Socialist revolutionary Party in 1896. They will soon obtain a substantial influence among the villages, even if they did not renounce the terrorist tactics put into use two decades earlier[48]. They will govern with the Bolsheviks until 1918 when, for opposing the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty with Germany which ended the war for Russia with major territorial costs but allowed Lenin and his followers to preserve Russia’s new political organization – they will be executed, imprisoned or exiled, and their party banished.

            Officially, the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party held its first Congress in 1898. Two years after, the so-called ‘legal Marxists’ separated and after the 1905 revolution created the Constitutional Party (the Kadets). The Kadets shared a social-liberal ideology, arguing for universal vote and a parliamentary republic, an aspiration which they abandoned in 1906 for constitutional monarchy. Needless to say, both the social-democrats and the Tsarist political elite looked upon them with mistrust or even hostility[49]. Their intellectual mentor, Peter Struve, was criticized by Plekhanov since the beginning of the 1890s for his thesis that in the capitalist society contradictions do not grow, as Marx predicted, but on the contrary, they are softened – and for his appeals to social reforms rather than revolution[50].

            But the most important split that affected Russian social democracy consumed itself in 1903 during the second party Congress when between the moderate and radical tendencies existent among its members occurred a breach that will never be overcome. The maximalists Bolsheviks, in favor of transforming the party into a disciplined organization composed strictly of devoted and unscrupulous revolutionaries were outvoted at first by the minimalist faction, the Mensheviks, who advocated for a not so restrictive definition. The factional struggle which arose was not so much principled as it was personal: both the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Ilich Lenin and the Menshevik leader Dan Martov sought to expand their influence and place their collaborators in key positions[51]. Soon after, Lenin managed to obtain a fragile and temporary majority and imposed his viewpoints. He ‘called his group the “majoritarians” (boslheviki), and his opponents the “minoritarians” (mensheviki)’[52]. Due to the weakness of the party in the provinces, although the Mensheviks held their first separate Congress in 1912, both factions worked together under the social-democratic label. But the events will growingly push them apart, despite hopes of reunification coming from both sides[53]. Although the Mensheviks considered themselves ‘rather orthodox than reformists in the Marxist European sense’[54], they were, however, ‘democrats by instinct, and their actions as revolutionaries were always held back by the moral scruples which this entailed. This was not true of the Bolsheviks. They were simpler and younger men, militant peasant-workers (…); doers rather than thinkers’[55].


Instead of conclusions: European social-democracy and Bolshevism, two incompatible intellectual and political traditions


The Bolshevik dictatorship was strongly criticized by prominent European social-democrats. Even at the end of the 19th century, Eduard Bernstein argued that democracy and socialism are inseparable and the present cultural and economic conditions allow a non-violent transition to a broader degree of social emancipation[56]. Marx’s writings needed to be extensively revised: capitalism had gradually managed to overcome profound crises and the social polarization which would bring about the revolution was replaced by a growing social and political conscious middle class[57]. Democracy also entails a culture of moderation and compromise because ‘the parties and the classes supporting them soon learn to recognize the limits of their power and, on each occasion, to undertake as much as they reasonably hope to achieve under the circumstances’. Furthermore, ‘the right to vote in a democracy makes its members virtual partners in the community and this virtual partnership must in the end lead to real partnership. With a working class underdeveloped by in numbers and culture, universal suffrage may for a long while seem no more than the right to choose “the butcher” .However, as the workers grow in number and awareness, it becomes an instrument for transforming the peoples representatives from being the masters to being the real servants of the people’[58]. Bernstein insists that Marx’s works are not to be interpreted as a dogma and that those who rely on the final goal of the socialist movement (abolition of capitalism) rather than its movement (meaning practical achievements) are nothing more than utopians: Marx’s writings were sometimes ambiguous and ‘what deserves to survive’ from its legacy is rather the questions he asked and the social awareness he helped create, not his deterministic dialectic and his coercive philosophy of history[59].

            The ruthless methods of Bolsheviks, who suppressed critical thinking and freedom of speech in the name of party discipline and who did not hesitate to impose a brutal an violent dictatorship in Russia, similar in many respects with the one they have overthrown, worried Eduard Bernstein. He called this model ‘Blanquist Marxism’ (August Blanqui was a French socialist and political activist admired by Lenin who sought destroy the bourgeois society through a violent revolution put into practice not by the working class, but by a devoted and fanatic group of revolutionaries) – and condemned it in harsh and unambiguous terms: ‘The Bolsheviks are the true counter-revolutionaries in Europe; they will kill the socialist revolution. Their interpretation of Marxist theories on the dictatorship of the proletariat is absolutely false. They have known only how to create an army commanded by the officers of the Tsar and intended to combat the will of the people. Their rule is the rule of corruption. (…). Bolshevism leads directly to the decadence of humanity’. Regarding the extreme repressiveness of Bolsheviks against other socialists or social-liberal currents (like the above mentioned Socialist Revolutionaries or the Kadets) or against Russian workers themselves, the revolts of which have been promptly and mercilessly crushed, Bernstein wrote:


The Bolshevist government was the first socialist regime that had peacefully demonstrating workers shot down with machine guns. The Bolshevik government was the first to simply lock up socialists of other persuasions – Socialists who are not putschists, but who were robbed of their rights outside the law and in breach of the law, repeating in all this things previously done by reactionary governments. In Russia Socialists, comrades who were at many international congresses and who have fought for socialism all their lives, are locked up and robbed of their rights… We need only to read the Bolsheviks’ own reports, we need only to read their government’s own statistics on the state of finances and social life as a whole, to see that a rotten, fraudulent system is at the helm, a system that compromises itself further by trying, after having bankrupted its own country, to pull other countries into this bankruptcy[60].


Another powerful critic of Bolshevism, although from a more orthodox Marxist position, was Rosa Luxemburg. She insisted that the actions of the political party who represent the workers cannot be separated from the general movement for social emancipation. Furthermore, the ‘strong tendency towards centralization’ she observed in the Bolshevik Party meant that ‘it did not count on the direct action of the working class. It therefore, did not need to organize the people for the revolution. The people were expected to play their part only at the moment of revolution. Preparation for the revolution concerned only the little group of revolutionists armed for the coup. Indeed, to assure the success of the revolutionary conspiracy, it was considered wiser to keep the mass at some distance from the conspirators’[61]. Lenin did not take into account that the leading organs of the party were also, to some extent, conservative, thus their exacerbated power obliterating future political tasks. Lenin’s aim was to control the party, not to help its development. He also ‘mechanically’ extrapolated ‘to Russia formulae elaborated in Western Europe’, not taking into account Russia’s specific social and economic conditions. The elitism, opportunism, dictatorial practices and betray of social-democracy by Bolsheviks was for Rosa Luxemburg an undeniable reality: ‘Nothing will more surely enslave a young labor movement to an intellectually elite hungry for power than this bureaucratic straitjacket, which will immobilize the movement and turn it into an automaton manipulated by a central committee[62].

Karl Kautsky was another prominent adversary of Bolshevism. For him, ‘Socialism without democracy is unthinkable. We understand by Modern Socialism not merely social organization of production, but democratic organization of society as well. Accordingly, Socialism is for us inseparably connected with democracy’[63]. The Bolsheviks were accused of being ruthless, hypocrite and opportunistic politicians who managed to retain power by renouncing the principles they were supposedly guided by: ‘To reach power they have renounced the democratic principles. To maintain their power they did the same with the socialist principles’. Kautsky finally concludes that ‘Bolshevism has triumphed in Russia, but socialism has suffered a defeat’. By replacing ‘private capitalism’ with ‘state capitalism’ Bolshevism only strengthened the arbitrariness of bureaucracy, an outcome described by Kautsky as being ‘the most oppressive despotism Russia had ever known’ and placing the workers under ‘the greatest economic slavery they have ever endured’[64]. Under Bolshevik dominance, Russia’s social and educational decay was a reality, a program which had nothing to do with Marx’s project[65]. ‘Only fascist Italy may be compared to Russia in this respect’, Kautsky opines, before generally concluding that a generation later, in the 1930s,


What we see in Russia is, therefore, not Socialism, but its antithesis. It can become Socialism only when the people expropriate the expropriators now in power, to use a Marxian expression. Thus, the socialist masses of Russia find themselves with respect to the problem of control of the means of production in the same situation which confronts the workers in capitalist countries. The fact that in Russia the expropriating expropriators call themselves Communists makes not the slightest difference. The difference between Soviet Russia and Western Europe is that the workers in the developed capitalist countries are already strong enough to have limited to some extent the dictatorship of capital and to have altered the power relations to a point which makes the socialization of important economic monopolies a matter of the political victory of the workers in the near future, whereas in Russia the means of production are highly concentrated in one hand and their ownership protected by an absolutist state machine, while the workers, being divided, without organization of their own, without a free press or free elections, are completely shorn of any means of resistance[66].


This is how Bolshevism looked to the European social-democrats. Even the most radical amongst them, such as Rosa Luxemburg, who did not renounce the aim of replacing the ‘bourgeois’ democracy existent in the capitalist society with a democracy which would not be only an expression of class struggle and a means of oppression of workers by a conservative elite – criticized Lenin and his political organization for its intolerable departure from the principles of socialism[67]. Had they been alive at the beginning of the 20th century, Marx and Engels would certainly not have considered Bolshevism a variety of socialism. Their radical democracy, growing more and more tempered as decades went by, is, as I have tried to prove in this article, a product of Enlightenment, while Bolshevism is the outcome of a degenerated form of populism, namely the nihilists and the terrorist sects which formed the majority of the Russian intelligentsia during the 1870s and the 1880s. The test of socialism is the test of democracy, real, immediate, palpable democracy; this is what really sets apart socialism from communism[68]. Without it, socialism cannot exist, although the history of the 20th century abounds in sectarian, non-democratic terrorist and criminal groups which called themselves socialist. Indeed, as Karl Kautsky wrote in a posthumous work, ‘The fundamental aim of the Communists of every country is not the destruction of capitalism but the destruction of democracy and of the political and economic organizations of the workers[69].




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HERȚEN, A.I., Opere filosofice alese, vol. II, Cartea Rusă, București, 1954.

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LEBOWITZ, Michael, The Contradictions of ‘Real Socialism’. The Conductor and the Conducted, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2012.

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NEUMANN, Iver, Russia and the idea of Europe. A study in identity and international relations, Routledge, London and New York, 1996.

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[1] Eduard Bernstein, The Preconditions of Socialism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002, p. 147, 160.

[2] Adam Smith, the author of the ‘invisible hand’ metaphor which symbolizes free market – possessed a very different semantics of the notion than the one usually attributed to it today. For Smith, powerful entrepreneurs (not public property) which have monopolistic, not competitive interests, are the main dangers a free market encounters.  One or two generations after Smith’s death, the descendants of those entrepreneurs, fewer and richer, used The Wealth of Nations, Smith’s most important work, to pursue their own interests in creating a market dominated by their huge businesses, where small and medium entrepreneurs (or capitalists) were gradually pushed aside and forced into bankruptcy. Ray Canterbery, A Brief History of Economics. Artful Approaches to the Dismal Science, World Scientific Publishing, London, 2001, pp. 39-60.

[3] Karl Marx judiciously exposed Europe’s image of itself as being prosperous due to a different work ethics, Christianity and cultural superiority – for what it truly was, a fraud. Europe’s advancement was not the result of a better economic system (capitalism) based on profit-making trough intelligent investments, commitment and hard work; quite the contrary, the massive plunder of colonies provided the start for the Industrial Revolution which led to Enlightenment and the whole process of modernity. Capitalul. Critica economiei politice, vol. I (Procesul de producție al capitalului), Editura de Stat pentru Literatură Politică, București, 1957, pp. 573, 712-714, 745-746, 749.

[4] M.L. Bush, Servitutea în epoca modernă, Antet, București, 2003.

[5] Gheorghe Popescu, Evoluția gândirii economice, Editura Academiei Române, Editura Cartimpex Cluj, Cluj-Napoca, 2004, pp. 269-305.

[6] Karl Marx, Contribuții la critica economiei politice, Editura de Stat pentru Literatură Politică, 1954, pp. 9-10; Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Ideologia germană, Editura de Stat pentru Literatură Politică, București, 1956, pp. 14-24.

[7] Karl Marx, Capitalul…, pp. 638-757.

[8] Ibidem, p. 646.

[9] Karl Marx, Contribuții…, pp. 65-66, 133-139, 146-148. See also Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Opere alese, vol. I, Editura Partidului Muncitoresc Român, București, 1949, pp. 374-375 and Karl Marx, Mizeria filosofiei. Răspuns la ‘Filosofia Mizeriei’ a d-lui Proudhon, Editura Partidului Comunist Român, București, 1947, pp. 31-41.

[10] Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Ideologia germană…, p. 44. See also Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Opere alese, vol. II, Editura de Stat pentru Literatură Politică, București, 1955, pp. 534, 552-553.

[11] An excellent introduction to Hegel’s thinking is to be found in Terry Pinkard’s book Hegel. A biography, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2000.

[12] James Billington, Russia in search of itself, Woodrow Wilson Center Press, Washington D.C., 2004, p. 15. See also Giovanni Sartori, Teoria democrației reinterpretată, Polirom, Iași, 1999, pp. 67-69.

[13] Hugh Seton-Watson, The Russian  Empire, 1801-1917, Oxford University Press, London, 1967, pp. 183-198.

[14] Isaiah Berlin, Russian Thinkers, Penguin Classics, London, 1998, pp. 170-211.

[15] V.I. Lenin, ‘În amintirea lui Herțen’, preface to A.I. Herțen, Opere filosofice alese, Cartea Rusă, București, 1950, pp. 5-14.

[16] Adam Ulam, Ideologies and Illusions. Revolutionary Thought from Herzen to Solzhenitsyn, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1976, p. 21; Isaiah Berlin, Russian…, p. 236; Isaiah Berlin, Adevăratul studiu al omenirii. Antologie de eseuri, Editura Meridiane, București, 2001, pp. 504-505.

[17] Franco Venturi, Roots of Revolution. A history of the Populist and Socialist Movements in Nineteenth Century Russia, Alfred Knopf, New York, 1960, pp. 34-35; Philip Pomper, The Russian Revolutionary Intelligentsia, Harlan Davidson, Arlington Heights, 1993, p. 47; Adam Ulam, The Bolsheviks. The intellectual and political history of the Triumph of Communism in Russia, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1998, p. 48; Isaiah Berlin, Adevăratul studiu …, p. 499.

[18] Philip Pomper, The Russian…, 66.

[19] A.I. Herțen, Opere filosofice alese, vol. II, Cartea Rusă, București, 1954, p. 74.

[20] Adam Ulam, Ideologies…, pp. 26-27.

[21] Herțen, Opere…, vol. II, pp. 331-332. Emphasis in original.

[22] Ibidem, pp. 342-343. Emphasis in original.

[23] Franco Venturi, Roots of Revolution…, p. 316.

[24] Adam Ulam, The Bolsheviks…, p. 50.

[25] Adam Ulam, Illusions…, pp. 24-25.

[26] Iver Neumann, Russia and the idea of Europe. A study in identity and international relations, Routledge, London and New York, 1996, p. 41; Hugh Seton-Watson, The Russian…, p. 550.

[27] Philip Pomper, The Russian…, 64.

[28] D. I. Pisarev, Studii filosofice și politico-sociale, Cartea Rusă, București, 1950, pp. 193-200.

[29] Hugh Seton-Watson, The Russian…, pp. 364-365.

[30] D.I. Pisarev, Studii…, p. 153.

[31] N.G. Cernîșevski, Ce-i de făcut?, Editura pentru Literatură Universală, București, 1963.

[32] D. I. Pisarev, Studii…, p. 234.

[33] Adam Ulam, Ideologies…, pp. 28-41.

[34] Philip Pomper, The Russian…, 93; Hugh Seton-Watson, The Russian…, p. 419.

[35] Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Opere alese, vol. II, pp. 45-57; Philip Pomper, The Russian…, p. 115.

[36] Hugh Seton-Watson, The Russian…, p. 422.

[37] Ibidem, pp. 423-424.

[38] Ibidem, pp. 427-428.

[39] Philip Pomper, The Russian…, p. 141.

[40] G.V. Plehanov, Opere filozofice alese, vol. I, Editura Politică, București, 1958, p. 562.

[41] Ibidem, pp. 76-86, 242, 275, 279-280, 285-289; G.V. Plehanov, Opere filozofice alese, vol. II, Editura Politică, București, 1961, p. 387.

[42] G.V. Plehanov, Opere…, vol. I, p. 139.

[43] G.V. Plehanov, Opere…, vol. I, pp. 281-282. Emphasis in original.

[44] Hugh Seton-Watson, The Russian…, p. 550.

[45] Orlando Figes, A people’s tragedy. The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924, Random House, London, 1996, p. 139.

[46] Iver Neumann, Russia…, pp. 61-62.

[47] Orlando Figes, A people’s tragedy…, p. 139.

[48] Hugh Seton-Watson, The Russian…, pp. 557-560.

[49] Iver Neumann, Russia…, pp. 73-76; Orlando Figes, A people’s tragedy…, pp. 148-149.

[50] G.V. Plehanov, Opere…, vol. II, pp. 433-444, 501, 509-512.

[51] André Liebich, De pe celălalt țărm. Social-democrația rusă după 1921, CA Publishing, Cluj-Napoca, 2009, pp. 41-42.

[52] Hugh Seton-Watson, The Russian…, p. 565.

[53] André Liebich, De pe celălalt țărm…, p. 54; Orlando Figes, A peopletragedy…, p. 153.

[54] André Liebich, De pe celălalt țărm…, p. 55.

[55] Orlando Figes, A peopletragedy…, p. 153.

[56] Eduard Bernstein, The Preconditions…, p. 142, 145-146, 160.

[57] Donald Sassoon, One Hundred Years of Socialism. The West European Left in the Twentieth Century, Tauris, London, New York, 2010, p. 17.

[58] Eduard Bernstein, The Preconditions…,  p. 144.

[59] Ibidem, pp. 198-199; Manfred Steger, The Quest for Evolutionary Socialism. Eduard Bernstein and social democracy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997, pp. 107-108.

[60] Quoted in Manfred Steger, The Quest…, pp. 237-239.

[61] Rosa Luxemburg, ‘Leninism or Marxism?’, in Helmut Gruber (ed.), International communism in the era of Lenin. A documentary history, Anchor Books, 1972, pp. 31-33.

[62] Ibidem, pp. 40-41. Emphasis in original.

[63] Karl Kautsky, The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, The National Labour Press, Manchester, 1918, p. 6.

[64] Karl Kautsky, Terorism și comunism. Contribuție la istoria revoluțiilor, Cartea Românească, București, 1921, pp. 147-150.

[65] David Lovell, From Marx to Lenin. An evaluation of Marx’s responsibility for Soviet authoritarianism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1984,  pp. 167-168.

[66] Karl Kautsky, Communism and Socialism, The American League for Democratic Socialism, New York, 1932, pp. 37-39.

[67] Contemporary critics are stressing the ‘one-sidedness’ of this peculiar breed of Russian Marxism (if it can really be called Marxism), also referred to as ‘Vanguard Marxism’. See Michael Lebowitz, The Contradictions of ‘Real Socialism’. The Conductor and the Conducted, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2012, pp. 173-188.

[68] Geoff Eley, Forging Democracy. The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000, Oxford University Press, New York, 2002, pp. 178-179.

[69] Karl Kautsky, Social-Democracy versus Communism, Rand School Press, New York, 1946, https://www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1930s/demvscom/index.htm, accessed in 20. 08. 2013. Emphasis in original.

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