Bootstrapping Marx With the Peasant Masses

One of the great ironies of 20th century history: Marxist revolutionaries could only ever  seize power in the wrong countries. Marx imagined a revolution of industrial proletariat; he expected that this proletariat would at first achieve its aims in highly industrialized nations like England and Germany. His theory of socialism presupposed that a successful transition from autocratic “feudalism” to a liberal bourgeois socio-economic system had already occurred. But of course, all of the world’s Marxist regimes were established in very different circumstances. The communist parties that successfully seized authority built their power in rebellion against non-democratic regimes, in countries where industrialization still lay far on the horizon. They justified their power in the name of an ideology whose own precepts predicted they should not exist.

Why did Marxism only gain power in the sort of countries Marx thought that Marxism did not apply to? There is both a mass and elite side to this question. The mass side is fairly easy to answer: in most truly industrial countries, the revolutionary masses had little interest in revolutionary activity. In America, France, England, and so forth, normal capitalist development, combined with organized parliamentary agitation, was able to secure the working man a rising wage and shorter days. For them, revolution was unnecessary. As long as their material progress maintained its forward crawl, incremental gains were enough. But just as important to any revolution as the masses is the revolutionary readership, Lenin’s “vanguard” elite. Why should this elite form easily in agrarian societies like China and Russia but struggle to take hold in countries like The United States? This is the question Robert C. Tucker addresses in the third chapter of the Marxian Revolutionary Idea. (As an aside, the first chapter of this book is perhaps the best 20 page precis of the Marxian revolutionary project that I have read. It would be an excellent side reading to pair with The Communist Manifesto in a college class).

Tucker describes the problem as such:

We must, in other words, see how Marxism’s view of the prerevolutionary period may plausibly appear burningly relevant to such a society’s present predicaments and problems. That such could be the case may seem improbable in the extreme. For Marx and Engels pictured the communist revolution as developing as a mass movement of rebellious factory workers and a proletarianized petty bourgeois in a society advanced capitalism dominated by the bourgeois class, whereas the society here in question is one that on Marxist criteria would have to be classified as “semi feudal” or at most “semi bourgeois.” Russia in the 1890s, when Marxism supplanted the old populist teachings as the regnant socialist ideology among the intelligentsia, was still fundamentally pre-bourgeois in its overall social economic character and political structure. Despite the considerable growth of capitalist enterprise and the factory working class that had taken place since the reforms of the ‘60s, the economy was still predominantly agrarian. Peasants accounted for about four fifths of the total population, the capitalists were far from social supremacy, and the great bureaucratic monarchy in St. Petersburg was an obvious anachronistic monstrosity. So backward was Russian society on the whole that Marxists generally took it for granted any revolution in the immediate historical future would necessarily be “bourgeois democratic” rather than proletarian, that its basic mission would be to clear away the debris of Russian absolutism, bring the bourgeois its primacy in society, and set the scene for the full and uninhibited development of capitalism. Yet the Communist Manifesto’s picture of society on the eve of proletarian revolution had a strangely captivating effect on their minds; and at the same time, mutatis mutandis, this has been the same for other semi-modern societies, some of them (for example China) less developed than Russia was at the turn of the century. Why? [1]

Tucker believes that Marxism had special appeal in countries marked by what he calls “arrested modernization.” A country whose modernization has been arrested does experience economic growth, the appearance of railways and other trappings of modernity, and so forth, but in only a narrow manner. In comparison to other countries in their region this growth seems minuscule, piece-meal and overly concentrated. The result is that

Such a society tends to divide into relatively modernized and relatively non modernized spheres. As a socioeconomic system it loses much of what homogeneity it still possessed in the traditional phase becoming rather advanced in certain ways and remaining quite backward in others. To be sure, certain modern facilities, such as railways and telegraph, may cover the country as a whole although without becoming fully accessible to the population as a whole. But the developmental process will essentially be very uneven. The large cities, and particularly the capital city, will become centers of concentrated economic development and affluence, with amenities comparable to those in highly advanced countries. These centers may be surrounded, however, by primitive urban slums, and the whole interior of the country maybe scarcely touched by modernity save on a large estates inhabited by the wealthy few. 

Culturally, too, the society of arrested modernization tends to become bifurcated. A minority of the population belonging to the upper and middle classes acquires advanced education, often at foreign universities, while the peasant masses remain largely illiterate. The minority assimilates modern secularized culture, including ideas, values, manners, and styles address; the majority says pretty much under the influence of the traditional culture and folkways. So great and indivisible may be the resulting cultural rift in society that there appear to be two different nations inhabiting one country.[2]

Now Tucker is a historian of Russia, and his description is tailor made to fit Russian realities at the turn of the 20th century (his “two nations” phrasing is an explicit nod to Lenin’s comments on every nation being divided between “two national cultures” ).[3] But you do not have to ponder his description long to see how well it applies to much of the 20th century’s developing world. 

One of the other parallels he draws between late imperial Russia and post-colonial third world regimes is the presence of a non-capitalist intelligentsia that dominates the nation’s intellectual life. Cosmopolitan in lifestyle, this cognoscenti is ever aware of their own country’s failure to modernize completely. National humiliation is a watchword for this class; these men and women dream of a distant future where their country leads their region, or perhaps even the world. This intelligentsia benefits fantastically from the existing socioeconomic system—if the reference point are the poor peasant masses. But if the reference point is the country’s own leaders, then this intellectual class are bit players, claiming only a small bit of cultural authority. Nor are they destined to produce the future do they desire; most are the children of land owners or government functionaries. Their standing and wealth are attached to the old order, having little in common with the country’s nascent industrial class. The proto-revolutionaries then are people who feel alienated from the existing power structure, guilty over their privileges, and distrustful of the one proven engine of economic growth. They have no place in the present or the future—unless they are the ones making that future.

Of course, part of the appeal of revolution to its revolutionaries has always been that it will put the revolutionaries in charge. But that doesn’t explain why revolutionaries in question find themselves drawn to Marxist theory in particular. Here is Tucker’s explanation for that development:

The basic reason, I suggest, is that Marxism portrays a totally polarized pre-revolutionary society, a society divided into two hostile class camps. The prime characteristic of all past societies according to the Manifesto, have been their division into warring classes, and the distinctive feature of the present epic is the simplification of the class antagonisms: “society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: bourgeois and proletariat.” This theme in Marxism is intensely meaningful to many members of the radical intelligentsia of a semi modern country because it centers on a salient aspect of society as they perceive it around them: its bifurcation. The impact of differential modernization, the disparity between the mode of life of the minority of well-to-do upper and middle class people and that of the great mass of peasants and other lower-class people has not only become visible but glaring. The one group belongs to modern society and enjoys his amenities; The other still lives, to a great extent, as in premodern times. 

The enormous contrast between the affluence of the one in the poverty and misery of the other is conjoined with such a great cultural gulf that there appear, as we have seen, to be two nations inhabiting one country. The radical intelligentsia, coming in most cases from the privileged minority, are guiltily and indignantly conscious of the great social cleavage as the most important —and unconscionable—fact of life in their country and some among them want to take revolutionary action to eliminate it. To them Marx’s account of contemporary society speaks volumes. Its description of a social scene dominated by the division between two great classes is relevant to the bifurcated society that they know. Its image of a “more or less veiled civil war raging within existing society up to a point where that more breaks out into open revolution” corresponds to what they would like to see happen in their country…. 

True, their country’s two nations, although divided by class as well as by gross inequality of wealth and possessions, are not really the two classes of which Marx spoke. The affluent elite is not primarily bourgeois although it includes native capitalists, nor are the poverty-stricken masses primarily proletariat. The former versus largely composed of land owners; the latter, of peasants. But this circumstance, while it creates problems for Marxism as a sociological theory, does not deprive it of great force as political ideology. It does not prevent elements of the radical intelligentsia from seeing their bifurcated society through Marx’s eyes, from assimilating the realities around them to Marx’s vision of class polarization. This is, moreover, all the easier for them when, as in Russia of the 1890s, further growth in capitalism is slowly lessening the discrepancy between Marxist theory and social reality by increasing the influence of the bourgeoisie on the one hand and the numbers of factory workers on the other.[4]

While other factor clearly contributed to Marxism’s mimetic success—chief among them, I think, the illusion that one’s revolutionary activity is guided by scientific certainties, and also that such activity is an expression of a great world movement, the movement of history itself—Tucker’s focus on bifurcation as the motive force behind the 20th century’s many Marxist uprisings makes a great deal of sense. It explains in part why agitators from nations as different as Russia, China, and Cuba found Marxism so appealing. Unfortunately, Marxist ideology was not meant for such societies such as these. Many of the great tragedies of the 20th century came when revolutionaries in power tried to force their people through a Marxist modernization schema never meant for the peasant masses.

If you found this post on Marxism’s history legacy interesting, you might also find the posts Reflections on China’s Stalinist Heritage, Parts I and II,” “Leninist Politics: A Reading Course,” and “Of Words and Weapons”  of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

 [1] Robert C. Tucker, The Marxian Revolutionary Idea (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 125-6.

[2] ibid., 116.

[3] V.I. Lenin, “Critical Remarks on the National Question,” (pamphlet, or. published 1913), available at

[4] Tucker, Marxian Revolutionary Idea, 126-7.

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One especially interesting thought in the back of my mind as I read this piece, and one that I was a little surprised that you did not allude to at all in the piece itself, was the disturbing degree of parallelism between that kind of society which is ripe for Marxist revolution, and that of current US society. I quote in particular:

– large and increasing class inequality
– fast-paced modernization of the wealthy urban core, at the expense of near everywhere else
– a high degree of cosmopolitanism in the elite, one which is generally not shared by the common people, and often regarded as a suspicious source of dual loyalties
– a low degree of social mobility between classes
– a vanguard party which mostly draws itself from the wealthy elite classes, and envisions itself leading the immiserated common people in a revolution against the wealthy elite, and where the fact of this situation stems from class guilt over hyperawareness of this gulf of inequality

Of course, it is also the case, that much of this is shared with the PRC…

I think this comparison isn't as strong as you may think. The difference between the Czarist Russian Elite and the peasants was like the difference between 1850 england and 1350 england- in technology as well as culture, education, religion and lifestyle. The peasantry largely couldn't read, mostly never went beyond a few miles from their village, never took a train ride unless they were conscripted, and likely wouldn't recognize indoor plumbing if you showed it to them. As large as we think the urban/rural gap is today, everyone is still using the same smartphones, everyone's still hooked up to the same international instantaneous communication networks. There have been alarming changes recently such as the much-talked-about decline in life expectancy but the history of the last 50 years, and even the last thirty, has largely been one of increasing overall quality of life for the population in general. The degree to which social mobility in the modern United States is low is also heavily exaggerated. As far as I know it is still true that nearly half of americans spend at least one year of their life in the top 1% of income earners. Class mobility is low compared to the US of the 1950s but that is because the 1950s US probably had the highest social mobility of almost any society in recorded history except maybe the 1750s thirteen colonies. The comparison to a vanguard party also sort of falls apart when you consider that the US is a democracy where it is possible for that vanguard to gain power through non-violent means, and they have done so in various elections over the past several decades, and also peacefully turned over power again when they lost.

This is something first- and second-generation Marxists were well aware of – the search string is "uneven and combined development"