Dear Professor Peter E. Gordon,
3 years ago in a New Republic review of Jonathan Sperber’s bio of Karl Marx you wrote:
It is sobering to recall that throughout his life Marx looked upon Imperial Russia as the most reactionary state in all of Europe. The outbreak of Bolshevik revolution a little more than three decades after his death would have struck him as a startling violation of his own historical principle that bourgeois society and industrialization must reach their fullest expression before the proletariat gains the class-consciousness that it requires to seize political control.
Today you reviewed another Marx biography in the NY Times, this time by Gareth Stedman Jones, that has a different take on Marx and the Russian Revolution:
After 1870, however, Marx relaxed these strictures, in part because the failure of the Paris Commune left him dismayed at the prospects for a Communist revolution in the West. This change of perspective brought a new openness to the possibility of revolution in Russia and the non-European world. In 1881, Marx answered a query from Vera Zasulich, a Russian noblewoman and revolutionary living in exile in Geneva. Pressed to explain his views on the Russian village commune, Marx agonized over his response — his letter went through no fewer than four drafts. Though still insisting that the isolation of the village commune was a weakness, he granted that the historical inevitability he had once discerned in the process of industrialization was “expressly limited to the countries of Western Europe”.
Perhaps in the period between the two reviews you had a chance to read Teodor Shanin’s “Late Marx and the Russian Revolution”. If so, I commend you.
I suppose we long-time Marxists who have risked arrest and worse for our beliefs can be grateful that the review was not written by someone like Ronald Radosh, now that the book review section is no longer edited by neocon Sam Tanenhaus.
But I find it hard to believe that Stedman Jones has “written the definitive biography of Marx for our time.” You do allow that “Stedman Jones is not always sympathetic to his subject.” Well, that goes without saying. He is on record as stating that Marx’s last important work was the German Ideology, which strikes me as preposterous. You certainly wouldn’t agree with that, I hope.
It is also a bit difficult to figure out whether you are speaking for yourself or Stedman Jones when you write: “In his early writings and well through the 1860s, Marx propounded a theory of history that extolled the heroic achievements of the bourgeoisie as the collective agent of global change.”
Where did you get the idea that Marx thought the bourgeoisie was “heroic”? In fact, he got off that tack just two years after the Communist Manifesto was written, arguably the only work where the term “heroic bourgeoisie” might be applied even if inaccurately. Perhaps you had in mind what Marx wrote in the Manifesto: “The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part.” I suppose it is a bit easy to confuse the terms “heroic” and “revolutionary” but Marx was referring primarily to the overthrow of feudal social relations rather than, for example, French workers defending the Paris Commune.
Returning to the question of what Marx thought only two years after the Manifesto, I would refer you to the Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League. Although it was written in March 1850, it looks back at 1848 as a year of bourgeois vacillation if not open counter-revolution:
We told you already in 1848, brothers, that the German liberal bourgeoisie would soon come to power and would immediately turn its newly won power against the workers. You have seen how this forecast came true. It was indeed the bourgeoisie which took possession of the state authority in the wake of the March movement of 1848 and used this power to drive the workers, its allies in the struggle, back into their former oppressed position. Although the bourgeoisie could accomplish this only by entering into an alliance with the feudal party, which had been defeated in March, and eventually even had to surrender power once more to this feudal absolutist party, it has nevertheless secured favourable conditions for itself. (emphasis added)
Finally, returning to the Russian question, I am afraid your last paragraph lacks clarity:
Just a year before his death and gravely ill, Marx wrote with Engels a short preface to the Russian edition of the ‘Manifesto.’ It entertained the prospect that the common ownership system in the Russian village might serve as “the starting point for a communist development.” Three and a half decades later, the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, and by the late 1920s the government commenced its brutal collectivization of agriculture. Like all intellectual legacies, Marx’s work remains open to new interpretation. But it seems clear that the man himself would never have accepted the inhumanity undertaken in his name.
One cannot be sure whether you are drawing an equation between Marx’s hopes for the rural communes and Stalin’s forced collectivization. If so, you are entirely mistaken. Marx saw a peasant-led revolution as merely the first step in a European wide revolution that would have a more proletarian character in the industrialized West while Stalin collectivized agriculture as part of “socialism in one country”, a project 180 degrees opposed to what Marx discussed with Vera Zasulich.
I hope this helps.
Louis Proyect, moderator of the Marxism list