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Collletti on Stalin NLR

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  • Lucio Colletti

    When in November 1917 the Bolshevik Party unleashed an insurrection andtook power, Lenin and his comrades were convinced that this was the first act ina world revolution. The process was started in Russia, not because Russia wasconsidered internally ripe for a socialist revolution, but because the immensecarnage of the First World War, military defeat, hunger and the deep misery ofthe masses had precipitated a social and political crisis in Russia before anyother country. The collapse of Czarism in February 1917 thus produced an un-certain and vacillating bourgeois-democratic republic, incapable of remedyingthe disasters of Russian society, or providing the basic necessities of life for thepopular masses. The Bolsheviks, in other words, believed that their party couldtake power and begin the socialist revolution even in Russia, despite its secularbackwardness. For the World War had confirmed once again what had alreadybeen revealed in 1905. Not merely in spite, but precisely because of its back-wardness, and the sum of old and new contradictions that were interlacedwithin it, Russia represented both the most explosive point in the chain of

    The Question of Stalin


  • world imperialism and the weakest link. This link, once broken,would carry with it the entire chain, accelerating the revolutionary pro-cess in the more developed industrialized countries of Europe, startingabove all with Germany.

    The Premisses of Bolshevism

    Their objective was therefore not simply to achieve the revolution inone particular country, even a country of such gigantic proportionsas the Czarist Empire, spread over two continents. Their objective wasworld revolution. The revolution which the Bolsheviks accomplishedin Russia was not conceived essentially as a Russian revolution, but asthe first step in a European and world revolution; as an exclusivelyRussian phenomenon, it had no significance for them, no validity andno possibility of survival.

    Hence the country in which the revolutionary process began did notinterest the Bolsheviks for its own sake, its special characteristics or itsnational destiny, but as a platform from which an international up-heaval could be launched. In these years Europe wasor seemed to bethe pivot of the world. If the revolution could spread from vast andbackward Russia to triumph in Germany, Austro-Hungary, Italy, theaxis of the whole globe would be shifted.

    What is striking today in retracing this experience, is the intense travailand inflexible determination with which the Bolsheviks, in a relativelyshort period of time, distilled and selected this strategic vision. Themost impressive fact here is the rigid intransigence of their refusal tomake any concessions to nationalism. In the concluding years of the19th century, Marxism had penetrated Russia not only as a foreignideology, historically and culturally developed in Western Europe, butas an open denial of any special mission peculiar to Russia, any privi-leged path for reaching socialism. It is enough to recall the implacablepolemics of Lenin and Plekhanov against populism. In opposition toSlavophile tendencies, which were deeply rooted in Russian cultureand often took up combative revolutionary positions at the politicallevel, the first Marxist nuclei of what was later to become the RussianSocial-Democratic Labour Party did not hesitate to advocate the path ofWesternization. The economic and social development of the countrywas not to be entrusted to the primordial virtues of Mother Russia.Development meant industrialization, the advance of capitalism. Theonly cure for the ills arising from the Asiatic backwardness of CzaristRussia was Western science and technology, capitalist industrial de-velopment, which would itself engender a modern factory proletariat.

    The importance of this ideological emphasis and the extent to which theentire first generation of Russian Marxists were committed to it, aredocumented in Lenins monumental research dedicated to The De-velopment of Capitalism in Russia. In the last decade of the century theRussian Marxists thus occupied the difficult position (which wasnaturally exploited polemically by the Populists) of advocating, thoughwith radically divergent goals and perspectives, the same process ofrapid industrialization that was supported by the liberal bourgeoisie.


  • The basic idea governing this position was that which forms the verycore and nucleus of the whole of Marxs thought. The socialist revolu-tion is a revolution made and led by the working class, a class whichgrows with the development of industrial capitalism itself. Thesocialist revolution is a complete human emancipation, but thisemancipation presupposes certain historical and material conditions:not only the socialization of labour or formation of the collectiveworker, not only a vertiginous increase in the productivity of labour,but also the dissolution of local and corporative limits, which can onlybe achieved in the framework of modern industrial production and theworld market created by capitalism. In the absence of these last twodecisive preconditions, Marxs whole theory itself remains in the air.For they provide both a world-wide revolutionary theatre in which theunification of all humanity, international communism, can be realized,and a revolutionary agency linked to scientific and rational work pro-cessesthe modern worker and technician.

    In the first years of this century, however, Russian Marxists soon be-gan to graft a series of specifications, and at times even modifications,onto this basic system of premises. They had to correct their sights forthe specific social and political terrain in which they had to operate,contemporary Russian society, in order to make a deep impact on it andact effectively as a revolutionary force.

    The Central Contradiction

    The first and one of the most important of these specifications was, ofcourse, the Jacobin conception of the party introduced by Lenin. Inthis conception, the party became a party of cadres or professionalrevolutionaries, in other words a highly centralized vanguard. It isnot difficult to discern the pressure, indeed necessity, exercised onRussian Marxism here by the special conditions of illegality in whichthe party was obliged to operate under the Czarist autocracy.

    A second specification, or rather in this case alteration, was critical dis-cussion of the classic Marxist schema, or at least that which had hither-to been attributed to Marx, of two epochs or phases of revolutionbourgeois-democratic and socialistas distinct stages located in suc-cessive historical eras. The problem encountered here derived evenmore from the specificity of Russian conditions. However the sheerscale of the problem in this case was such that it profoundly affected thewhole strategy and future of the workers party. Given the autocraticcharacter of the Czarist regime and the complete absence of any form ofliberal constitutionalismnot to speak of the still somewhat feebledevelopment of industrial capitalismthe Marxist party had to oper-ate in an environment where it was universally acknowledged that abourgeois revolution would in any event have to take place before thesocialist revolution. The problem then was: what position should aMarxist party take towards this bourgeois revolution, which both pro-motes the further development of capitalism, and reinforces and or-ganizes the working class?

    Until about 1905, the Russian Marxists were broadly content to accept




  • the thesis according to which socialist revolution was not possible in aneconomically backward country like Russia, where the industrial pro-letariat was a tiny minority and where no bourgeois revolution had yettaken place. In Russia, they argued, the revolution could only bebourgeois; the task of Russian social-democrats could only be that ofsupporting the bourgeoisie and not therefore that of carrying out theirown revolution.

    After 1905, however, only the Mensheviks continued to maintain thisthesis. The Menshevik line, which implied either support for the liberalbourgeoisie in accomplishing the bourgeois revolution or abstentionby the social-democratic party to keep its hands clean, was opposed bytwo other strategic perspectives within the Russian workers movementduring the 1905 Revolution. These two alternative perspectives werethemselves counterposed: Lenins revolutionary-democratic dictator-ship of the proletariat and the peasantry and Trotskys permanentrevolution.

    Common to both these positions, as against the Mensheviks, was theirassignation of a positive and leading role to the social-democrats duringthe bourgeois-democratic revolution itself. The differences betweenthem, however, were great enough to make them antithetical in otherrespects. Lenin thought that the party should promote a revolutionaryworker-peasant coalition which would accomplish the bourgeois revo-lution and thereby prepare the ground for the socialist revolution; yetthis process would nevertheless remain for a whole historical period apurely bourgeois revolution, given the preponderance of the peasantry.Trotsky, on the other hand, maintained that while the Russian prole-tariat ought to win the peasants and lead them in the bourgeois revo-lution, it would not be able to halt the process at that point. Thecompletion of the bourgeois revolution would necessarily oblige theproletariat to initiate its own revolution in an uninterrupted process.

    It is important to grasp one point: both these lines, born precisely asresponses to the specific problem of revolution in Russia, nonethelesspresuppose more or less explicitly an integration, support and com-pletion at the international level. Removed from this global context andenclosed within the limits of Russian society at that

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