When in November 1917 the Bolshevik Party unleashed an insurrection and took power, Lenin and his comrades were convinced that this was the first act in a world revolution. The process was started in Russia, not because Russia was considered internally ripe for a socialist revolution, but because the immense carnage of the First World War, military defeat, hunger and the deep misery of the masses had precipitated a social and political crisis in Russia before any other country. The collapse of Czarism in February 1917 thus produced an uncertain and vacillating bourgeois-democratic republic, incapable of remedying the disasters of Russian society, or providing the basic necessities of life for the popular masses. The Bolsheviks, in other words, believed that their party could take power and begin the socialist revolution even in Russia, despite its secular backwardness. For the World War had confirmed once again what had already been revealed in 1905. Not merely in spite, but precisely because of its backwardness, and the sum of old and new contradictions that were interlaced within it, Russia represented both the most explosive point in the chain of
Their objective was therefore not simply to achieve the revolution in one particular country, even a country of such gigantic proportions as the Czarist Empire, spread over two continents. Their objective was world revolution. The revolution which the Bolsheviks accomplished in Russia was not conceived essentially as a Russian revolution, but as the first step in a European and world revolution; as an exclusively Russian phenomenon, it had no significance for them, no validity and no possibility of survival.
Hence the country in which the revolutionary process began did not interest the Bolsheviks for its own sake, its special characteristics or its national destiny, but as a platform from which an international upheaval could be launched. In these years Europe was—or seemed to be—the pivot of the world. If the revolution could spread from vast and backward Russia to triumph in Germany, Austro-Hungary, Italy, the axis of the whole globe would be shifted.
What is striking today in retracing this experience, is the intense travail and inflexible determination with which the Bolsheviks, in a relatively short period of time, distilled and selected this strategic vision. The most impressive fact here is the rigid intransigence of their refusal to make any concessions to nationalism. In the concluding years of the 19th century, Marxism had penetrated Russia not only as a foreign ideology, historically and culturally developed in Western Europe, but as an open denial of any special mission peculiar to Russia, any privileged path for reaching socialism. It is enough to recall the implacable polemics of Lenin and Plekhanov against populism. In opposition to Slavophile tendencies, which were deeply rooted in Russian culture and often took up combative revolutionary positions at the political level, the first Marxist nuclei of what was later to become the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party did not hesitate to advocate the path of Westernization. The economic and social development of the country was not to be entrusted to the primordial virtues of Mother Russia. Development meant industrialization, the advance of capitalism. The only cure for the ills arising from the ‘Asiatic backwardness’ of Czarist Russia was Western science and technology, capitalist industrial development, which would itself engender a modern factory proletariat.
The importance of this ideological emphasis and the extent to which the entire first generation of Russian Marxists were committed to it, are documented in Lenin’s monumental research dedicated to The Development of Capitalism in Russia. In the last decade of the century the Russian Marxists thus occupied the difficult position (which was naturally exploited polemically by the Populists) of advocating, though with radically divergent goals and perspectives, the same process of rapid industrialization that was supported by the liberal bourgeoisie.
The basic idea governing this position was that which forms the very core and nucleus of the whole of Marx’s thought. The socialist revolution is a revolution made and led by the working class, a class which grows with the development of industrial capitalism itself. The socialist revolution is a complete human emancipation, but this emancipation presupposes certain historical and material conditions: not only the ‘socialization of labour’ or formation of the ‘collective worker’, not only a vertiginous increase in the productivity of labour, but also the dissolution of local and corporative limits, which can only be achieved in the framework of modern industrial production and the world market created by capitalism. In the absence of these last two decisive preconditions, Marx’s whole theory itself remains in the air. For they provide both a world-wide revolutionary theatre in which the unification of all humanity, international communism, can be realized, and a revolutionary agency linked to scientific and rational work processes—the modern worker and technician.
In the first years of this century, however, Russian Marxists soon began to graft a series of specifications, and at times even modifications, onto this basic system of premises. They had to correct their sights for the specific social and political terrain in which they had to operate, contemporary Russian society, in order to make a deep impact on it and act effectively as a revolutionary force.