Mar 12 2007

Secularism, Socialism and Religion

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 14RCN @ 3:26 pm

Bob Goupillot outlines a Marxist approach to religion

A Marxist understanding of religion

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people

Karl Marx

Marx understood the religious impulse to be a human response to a world that sometimes presents as scary, terrifying and out of our control. Thus the religions of hunter-gatherer people focus on asserting control over their prey animals, the religious festivals of farming peoples focus on marking the passing seasons and placating the gods and goddesses of the earth and sky. Religion is a human, spiritual response to an uncertain world.

Under capitalism, Marx argued, religious faith and religion in general are a result of and a response to, capitalist oppression and exploitation. Thus the religious impulse today is a way of responding to the uncertainty of a world based on impersonal market relations rather than direct human relationships. A world in which we are not expected to love our neighbour or be our brother’s (or sister’s) keeper but are encouraged to relate to others, as competitors for limited resources, or at best, fellow consumers. In the modern world Religion is a product of alienation-our atomisation and isolation from each other and our selves.

Thus religion is a response to, rather than a direct cause of, oppression. This explains the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Arabic and Asian world. An important factor here was the failure of socialist and revolutionary nationalist movements e.g. Nasser in Egypt, Gaddafi in Libya, to defeat encroaching capitalism in the form of western imperialism. In the absence of an effective socialist movement Radical Islam provides a channel for the rage of the oppressed. Hamas and Hizbollah offer solace in the next world whilst being vehicles to deal with issues in this one e.g. the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

(As an aside I would argue that the historical Jesus was part of the Jewish resistance to Roman occupation and an early anti imperialist)

A progressive socialist approach to religion – secularism.

Marx criticised religion but he was equally scathing about liberals or anarchists who made the criticism of religion a point of honour and insisted on everybody being atheists.

Such thinkers would often argue against supporting campaigns in support of religious tolerance and against religious oppression (in our time, Islamophobia, in Marx ‘s time, anti Judaism) on the grounds that this was tolerating or even supporting religion. This misses the point that the right to freely express ones spiritual or philosophical beliefs is a hard won, democratic right, that should be ‘religiously’ defended by all progressive people, socialists in particular.

Marx argued that religious beliefs will erode to the degree that the material conditions that promote them erode, that is the exploitation and oppression of capitalism. Thus rather than focussing on a fight against religion we should be uniting with all those, believer and non-believer, who genuinely oppose capitalism.

Secularism – a definition

The attitude that religion should have no place in civil affairs.

Collins English dictionary

Secularism denotes the separation of religion from the state and abolishing discrimination between religions. That is a person’s spiritual or philosophical beliefs are their own affair and should be free from outside pressure or interference. People should be free to practise their religion, agnosticism or atheism as they see fit (provided it does not harm others). It expresses the equality of believers and non-believers.

Thus it is possible, for example, to be a secular, Christian, Moslem or Jewish socialist.

A secular state means no public funds would be given to any religious schools nor would any specific religion be preferentially taught although there might be the study of religions as a branch of philosophy.

The religious instruction of children into one faith is indoctrination as they are being deprived of choice – some Baptists kind of believe this and they only baptise adults.

State has no place in personal spiritual development. Opposition to state religion.

There are virtually no truly secular states. Interestingly, the writers of the US constitution firmly rejected any idea of a state religion and the final document omits any reference to god. The US state officially derives its authority from the people not God whatever George Bush and other American Christian fundamentalists may say.

Misguided socialist approaches to religion

Since Marx’s time socialists have wrestled with the issue of how to relate to religion and religious believers. This history has produced a number of misguided approaches to this important question:

  • 1) State atheism, crackdowns on religions. This happened in Enver Hoxha’s ‘socialist’ Albania. It also happened in the Soviet Union under Stalin. He later ensured that the Russian Orthodox Church became an arm of the state.
  • 2) Separation of church and state but secularism used as stick to beat religious minorities e.g. the banning of the Muslim hijab in France was supported by some sections of left as a defence of ‘secularism’. The correct approach was to support the right of Muslim women to freedom of choice over what they wear (or don’t wear) in opposition to the capitalist state and the religious authorities.
  • 3) Sections of the left, including within the SSP, oppose a Secularist position. Thus at our last 3 national conferences motions favouring secularism in our education system have failed to be discussed or have been voted down. Arguments against us promoting secularism usually take the following forms:
    • i) Given that some religions have their own schools funded by the state e.g. Catholicism it is discriminatory or even racist to refuse funding to other religions e.g. Islam.
    • ii) State schools are in practice Protestant schools and parents who subscribe to other religions are perfectly entitled to support for schools that are based on their religion.
    • iii) A distorted anti-imperialism/cultural relativism – i.e. we mustn’t judge other cultures. Some of those who attack secularism defend “Islam” to try and be seen as defending Muslims.

      However Lenin argued that all societies have ‘two cultures’ a democratic progressive culture and a repressive, backward culture and socialists must distinguish between the two. Therefore defend Muslims from state oppression and Islamophobia but don’t sweep disagreements under carpet.
      What is often proposed instead is a variety of multiculturalism or religious equality whereby every religion has the right to state support for its own ‘faith’ school.

      Note: what is not proposed is the equality of believers and non-believers i.e. secularism.

      Multiculturalism is a means whereby the capitalist state divides the working class and manages social conflict. In place of class struggle, religious, cultural, or ethnic groups are supposed to compete with each other for the state’s favours.

    • iv) Some socialists inside and outside Iraq and Iran see Islamic regimes or even Islam itself as the main or as great an enemy as the UK/USA imperialism. This is a mistake.

Socialism and secularism in Scotland/UK today – what should we campaign for?

  • Separation of church and state
  • No state support for ‘faith’ schools
  • No religious teaching in schools but the study of religions
  • The abolition of the UK’s blasphemy laws.

All belief systems should be open to criticism. That doesn’t mean that all criticism is useful e.g. the Danish anti-Islamic cartoons which were merely insulting. The Blair government is seeking to extend the blasphemy laws from Christianity to cover other religions. This has been supported by the likes of George Galloway, the SWP and Respect in England on the grounds that it would give some legal protection against Islamophobia.

Socialists should oppose all attempts to divide the working class on the basis of religion. Class unity in this world is more important than agreement about the nature of the next world.

Socialists consistently demand the earthly equality of believers and non-believers. We campaign for a democratic, secular, republic.

Intelligent design?

Intelligent design?


Aug 03 2003

Beyond Broadswords and Bayonets

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 05&06RCN @ 3:05 pm

Challenging left nationalism and left unionism in the SSP

Neil Davidson’s latest work on Scottish history, Discovering the Scottish Revolution 1692-1746 has generated considerable debate in the Scottish Socialist Party. Allan Armstrong gives his analysis of the book and its critics.Introduction by Bob Goupillot

In writing Beyond Broadswords and Bayonets, his response to the debate around Neil Davidson’s book Discovering the Scottish Revolution 1692 – 1746, Allan Armstrong has done all those interested in Scottish history from a working class and Marxist perspective a great favour.

Socialists writing on Scottish history tend to be influenced by one of two contending perspectives, either that of left nationalism or left unionism. Left nationalists identify with the story of the emerging Scottish nation going back to at least pre-feudal times. The heroes of this story are those figures seen to be defending Scotland and its independence (even when they are attacking the people and their liberties). Thus Wallace and Bruce are equally esteemed, despite Wallace rallying the commons and burghers in the defence of their rights, whilst Bruce pursued his family’s own dynastic, feudal interests.

In contrast left unionists see the rise of the British state and capitalism as progressive because they lead to the development of Capitalism and its gravedigger the working class. From this perspective Scottish history is seen only as a subordinate part of the much more important British story. Even Marxists and good socialists like Neil see developing the forces of production and the rise of the
UK state as an entirely good thing. The extreme version of this view sees the rise of Capitalism as natural, inevitable and progressive even if it entails destroying the lives and liberty of real, living, feeling, human beings. This left wing version of the Whig view of history reflects an arid mechanical, materialism where people are passive objects shaped by the laws of history rather than revolutionary subjects.

Allan, however, maintains that there is another, genuinely working class, perspective on history – Internationalism from Below. This view challenges monarchical Jacobitism and pro-capitalist Unionism and the idea that what actually happened was the best or the only or the inevitable outcome of the struggles of the working class and their forebears. We must remember that the rise of British capitalism depended directly on the defeat of radical, democratic and revolutionary forces such as the English Levellers and the Scottish Cameronians. (or later in history the Luddites – much misunderstood by socialists from Marx onwards) Allan reminds us that there were other historical possibilities, other alternative outcomes, such as a victorious Levellers aligning themselves with the old remnant clan forces in Ireland and making links with those radical Covenanters prepared to look beyond the dogma of the ministers – the commissars of the day.

He identifies a red thread running from William Wallace through the Covenanters, Cameronians and United Scotsmen to its most famous representatives, James Connolly and John Maclean. What links these individuals and movements is that whilst they defended their own rights, they were aware of their connection to struggles going on beyond the borders of Scotland. Along the way Allan demolishes a few cherished myths. These include that Edward I, the Hammer of the Scots, was an early representative of an aggressive English nationalism; when in fact he was king of an officially French speaking feudal empire with lands in England, Wales, Ireland and Gascony. Similarly, neither Robert the Bruce, the Lords of the Isles nor the Stuart dynasty can be viewed as defenders of Scottish independence and/or Gaelic/Celtic culture.

Of the links in the revolutionary chain mentioned above, by far the least well known are the Cameronians. Left nationalists ignore them because they were opposed to Jacobite absolutism, the divine right of kings and monarchical control of the church. (They famously defeated a Jacobite army at Dunkeld. This Jacobite force had previously defeated Williamite forces at the much better known Battle of Killiekrankie).

In contrast, they are devalued by left unionists because of their opposition to the Act of Union. Allan argues that their neglect by Scottish socialists is unforgivable in that they represent the most revolutionary and democratic force in Scotland in what were revolutionary times. Indeed they have been compared to by analogy with the red guards of the Russian Revolution. When a Scottish Convention of the Estates met in Edinburgh in 1689 the Cameronians marched their armed men into the city and turned out all those ministers who supported James VII and his Episcopalian Church from their kirks. They went on to set up an armed Watching Committee over a Convention of the Estates, thus creating a situation of dual power.

However, for Allan, this is not just a history lesson. He describes an indigenous revolutionary tradition that can inspire us today. We can be inspired by Wallace in the same way that Marx identified with Spartacus (despite his lack of a revolutionary programme and failure to promote democratic centralism). As always with Allan, democracy is the key. Grass-roots control is the true measure of radicalism (and even proto-socialism). He contrasts the open debate and decision making of the Cameronians General Meetings with the absolute monarchy – supporting Jacobites.

Today the multinational British state denies self determination to Scotland in a non-voluntary union. The struggle to right this democratic deficit must be led by socialists otherwise it will be led by bourgeois nationalists like the SNP, or at best, as in Ireland, by revolutionary nationalists like Sinn Fein.

For Allan we must become Scottish Internationalists and in fighting the battle for a Scottish Workers Republic reach out to our allies, particularly in England, Wales and Ireland, because we face the same class enemy, embodied in the British state.


Aug 05 2002

Which route for political, working class unity in Britain?

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 03RCN @ 12:24 pm

We are publishing the statement by Cymru Goch because it highlights some of the problems hampering the struggle for working class unity in Britain. Bob Goupillot outlines his personal reflections on these problems and suggests a possible way forward.

My view is that all individual socialists and socialist organisations should be inside the
SSP or the Socialist Alliances in England and Wales. As a member of the Republican Communist Platform within the SSP, I know how difficult it can be to operate as a minority faction inside a much larger organisation. It takes discipline and a clear eye on the strategic goal of working class unity. Hence, I believe that Cymru Goch should have stayed inside the Welsh Socialist Alliance, despite the frustrations that they have experienced. This is even more important given that Cymru Goch had taken a superb initiative in organising the best republican response to the Windsor jubilee in these islands. (This was a three day Stuff the Monarchy festival in Pontypridd, which was opened by a speech from Alan McCombes of the SSP.) This has given them a platform to challenge the opportunism of the SWP within the Welsh Socialist Alliance.

The Socialist Workers Party

At present the creation of a single, united, all-Britain working class party appears to be an unlikely prospect. The Socialist Alliances in England and Wales seem weak and disorganised. This is illustrated by some shocking by-election results and anecdotal evidence from Labour lefts in England and Wales who appear to be only vaguely aware of the SA’s existence. Even worse, the SWP, the largest organisation in the Sas, seems unwilling or unable to commit itself to seriously building the SAs or produce a strategy for class unity. Their characterisation of the Socialist Alliance as a united front of a special kind is a block to building a serious working class party (or parties). This is because it sees itself as already being The Party. It is just that the rest of us are too blind to see it.

In Scotland, with the already existing Scottish Socialist Party as an established political fact, such a claim is not credible. Here the SWP has evolved into a platform that never counter poses the independent socialist Scotland programmatic commitment of the
SSP with its own belief in organising on a British basis. As the largest socialist organisation in Britain, the SWP needs to recognise its responsibilities, stop its opportunism and explain to the wider working class (and I suspect its own members) where it stands on the national question and working class unity.

The Socialist Party

The Socialist Party of England and Wales has left the Socialist Alliances in England even though their co-thinkers, the CWI (Scotland), have remained in the SSP. The Socialist Party needs to bite the bullet and rejoin the SAs. A truly class conscious organisation would recognise this as a necessity. Blaming the SWP for everything is not a strategy for taking the class forward. If the SP did rejoin and proved itself serious about building the Socialist Alliances, this would be the strongest political challenge to the SWP that they could mount. Potentially it could win for them the leadership of the class conscious workers. They could repeatedly challenge the SWP on the grounds of Are you serious about working class unity? What’s your strategy? Of course, in order to pose these questions effectively they would have to produce credible answers of their own.

The Scottish Socialist Party

Inside the SSP, we have policies that trumpet our internationalism and we send representatives to conferences on European socialist unity. However, it is difficult to raise the issue of bringing about closer unity with comrades in England, Wales or Ireland. We have no concrete proposals for improving cooperation with socialists in England, Wales or Ireland and hence helping to unite the working class of these islands. There is simply an absence, a gap. Most, negative, responses refer to the weakness of the Socialist Alliances. However, the weakness of the
SAs makes it even more important that the
SSP, currently representing the most organised section of the working class in Britain, gives a lead in promoting unity amongst the working class. Given that the SSP is much further developed than the
SAs and, more importantly, has years of experience of making left unity work, I think that we have a political responsibility to aid pro-unity groupings out with Scotland. It seems to me that there are only three routes to political unity amongst the working class of Britain.

These are:

  1. (A single united party for all socialists in England, Scotland and Wales.
  2. A single party with a federal make-up based on separate sections based in Scotland, England and Wales with the SSP being the Scottish section.
  3. The creation of separate parties in Scotland, England and Wales (or England plus Wales). These separate parties would then need to work together as closely as possible. I will use the term Confederation to describe this structure to distinguish it from the tighter, federal structure of option 2.

Under this scenario, overtures could be made to pro-unity groups in Ireland. [I support all-Ireland Alliances, not those that accept partition. There are opportunities opening on the left, as the Good Friday Agreement and government/employer/trade union partnership deals fail to deliver for the working class and Sinn Fein continues to move to the right.] This Confederation would in turn seek to be part of a wider European and ultimately worldwide Socialist grouping.

Those who declare that they are for the unity of the working class yet reject the single party options, 1 & 2 must, if they wish to remain credible, produce a strategy based on option 3. Those who argue against an all-Britain party must come up with an alternative, practical proposal/plan/strategy. An abstract phrase like through struggle (particularly in the absence of major struggles) will not suffice To comrades in the SSP and the leadership in particular, I would say, let’s be more ambitious and less parochial. We need to be outward looking, even a bit evangelical. Most working class people instinctively strive for class unity. It is that emotion and thought that we need to connect with. There have always been sectarians and narrow nationalists and part of our role will be to expose them by our non-sectarian, internationalist practice. We do not have forever. Let’s have confidence in our experience and ourselves and get on with it. Remember borders are man-made constructs; let’s not turn them into insurmountable barriers.

I think that the following suggestions would move the whole process forward:

  1. That the SSP publicly declares, as one of its aims, that it will aid Socialist Unity in England, Wales and Ireland and to have a real debate within the SSP on how to do it.
  2. That the SSP, whether in the form of branches, platforms or individuals, makes every attempt to communicate directly with SA members down south, much as we did during the Poll Tax, when again Scotland was in the lead. Again using the experience of the Poll Tax, SSP branches could twin with SA branches and build up personal and political relationships.
  3. The SSP should take a lead in organising a conference of all those individuals and organisations that believe that building
    SSP – type parties in England, Wales and Ireland would be a step forward.

The important strategic goal is to bring about effective working class unity. The question of whether this is brought about by an all-Britain Party or cooperation between nationally based SSP type parties is a tactical one i.e. It depends on the circumstances in which we find ourselves and is not, repeat not, one of principle. At this point in history, I am not in favour of raising the slogan of an all- Britain party within the SSP. Our role is to help comrades down south and in Ireland to come together and then let us take it from there. Comrades, lets have a mature discussion without falling into the Brit left/Unionist vs nationalist slanging match (again). The rise of the BNP, Le Pen and the Anti-Agreement loyalist LVF/UDA shows that we have a responsibility to reflect soberly on the way forward. Without a credible and united Left the radical Right looks attractive to those desperate for change and those desperate to avoid change.

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Jul 26 2002

Roads to Freedom or did Marx change his mind?

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 02RCN @ 8:50 pm

Karl Marx
Favourite maxim – Nihil humanum a me alienum puto (Nothing human is alien to me)
Favourite motto – De omnibus dubitandum (Doubt everything)

Bob Goupillot examines Marx’s search for new paths to social transformation

Who will mend the hole in the ozone layer? Who will reverse global warming? It is quite clear that it will not be the capitalist class whose world view is dominated by short-termism and the profit motive. Thus to save the world we have to change the form of society in which we live and as part of this process remove the current dominant class and replace it with a democratic, inclusive way of organising ourselves.

How are we to achieve this awesome task of transformation? Where can we look for guidelines and inspiration? Many socialists would point immediately to Karl Marx and his theoretical legacy. However, even if we have managed to grasp the often subtle profundities of Marx’s thought, it seems that on the crucial issue of how capitalist society could be transformed, via socialism into communism, he may have changed his mind during his last 10 years.

Intellectual slow death?

After Capital Vol 1, which was published in 1867, no more major works of Marx were published in his lifetime. The last decade of his life, 1873-1883, was described by an early biographer, Franz Mehring, as an intellectual slow death. Most subsequent biographers have accepted this viewpoint. A recent biographer, Francis Wheen, following in this tradition, wrote,

It was as if he had tacitly accepted defeat and settled down to benign anecdotage, content to observe and reminisce. The years of passionate engagement – pamphlets and petitions, meetings and manoeuvres – were over.
Karl Marx, F. Wheen, 2000 p359

In fact, he was dealing with and trying to intellectually digest a number of important recent events.

First, the Paris Commune had arisen and fallen in 1871. This was the only example of living workers in power that Marx had experienced.

The Commune was therefore to serve as a lever for uprooting the economical foundations upon which rests the existence of classes, and therefore of class rule
Civil war in France, Karl Marx

Petr Lavrov, the First Internationalist, prominent Russian Populist and long-term friend of Marx, in his book on the Commune wrote,

At the moment when the historical conjuncture permits the workers of any country, albeit temporarily, to overcome their enemies and control the course of events, the workers must carry through the economic overturn with whatever means may be expedient, and do everything that they can to ensure that it is consolidated.

Secondly, Marx had wound up the First International in 1872 as the revolutionary tide ebbed.

Thirdly, there had been paradigm – shifting theoretical and practical gains in the field of palaeontology. New finds had extended the prehistory of humanity by tens of thousands of years. Archaeology, anthropology and ethnography had brought ancient human societies into the range of historical study. There was much to chew over. Karl Marx spent his last decade or so in intense study. The fruits of this led him to revise and even totally contradict his earlier writings, including some aspects of Das Kapital. In this period Marx delved deeply into anthropology and ethnography, particularly the anthropologist Henry Morgan’s scholarly work Ancient Society

It was only after reading Morgan that anthropology, previously peripheral to Marx’s thought, became its vital centre. His entire conception of historical development, and particularly of pre-capitalist societies, now gained immeasurably in depth and precision. Above all, his introduction to the Iroquois and other tribal societies sharpened his sense of the living presence of indigenous peoples in the world, and their possible role in future revolutions….it added a whole new dimension (italics in the original)
Karl Marx & the Iroquois, F. Rosemont, p. 210.

Marx copied out long passages of Morgan and others with his own substantial commentaries alongside. These were notes for a substantial work left unwritten and although their existence was known at his death in 1883, they were not published as one volume until 1972, 89 years later, and then only in a high priced specialist edition. These Ethnological Notebooks, as they became known were much less than a rough draft, Rather it is a raw substance of a work, a private jumble of jottings intended for no other eyes than Marx’s own Rosemont, p.201, italics in original

Engels summarised these in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, but missed out many of Marx’s most important insights. It was simply a popular digest of the work of Morgan and others. Sadly, Engels’ work has been taken for orthodoxy particularly in the traditional Stalinized version of Marxism. This is not to blame Engels, who himself describes it as but a meagre substitute, for the much larger work that Marx left unwritten.

Marx saw aspects of these ancient societies as progressive and worthy of preservation during the socialist transition to Communism. He felt that they were in some ways superior to societies based on alienated labour and commodity production. Iroquois society, in particular, impressed him. Marx admired not just their democratic culture but also their whole way of life: egalitarianism, independence, reverence for life and personal dignity.

Marx praised Iroquois participatory democracy as expressed in their councils as a democratic assembly where every adult male and female member had a voice upon all questions brought before it.

He quotes a letter from a missionary sent to Morgan,

The women were the great power among the clans as everywhere else. They did not hesitate, when occasion required, to knock off the horns, as it was technically called from the head of a chief, and send him back to the ranks of the warriors. The original nomination of the chiefs also always rested with them…………. women were free to to express their opinions, through an orator of their own choosing
Rosemont, p.205, italics in original

However, an all male council made decisions. Nevertheless, Iroquois women experienced freedom and social power beyond that experienced by women and men in so called advanced civilizations.

The Iroquois red skin hunter was, in some ways, more essentially human and liberated than a clerk in the City and in that sense closer to the man of the socialist future.
Late Marx and the Russian Road, T. Shanin, p.15

From Marx’s perspective to be in Iroquois society was a higher level of humanity than to exist in capitalist society no matter how awash with commodities. This does not mean that Marx was, or that we should be, backward looking. Rather comparison with the Iroquois illustrates how our humanity is degraded by capitalism. It also points towards the higher social relations that humanity might achieve in a socialist society, resting on the technological achievements inherited from capitalism, rather than bows and arrows. Through Morgan, Marx became vividly aware of the reality of an actually existing non-capitalist human society. This wasn’t just interesting anthropology, but part of Marx’s search for new paths to social transformation. Reading about the Iroquois,

….gave him a vivid awareness of the actuality of indigenous peoples and perhaps even a glimpse of the then – undreamed – of possibility that such peoples could make their own contributions to the global struggle for human emancipation.
Rosemont, p.207

Whither Russia?

Around this time, the Russian revolutionaries were much vexed by the question as to whether their country must pass through the stages that Marx had outlined for Western Europe i.e.

Primitive Communism, Feudalism, Capitalism, Socialism, Communism

or whether it was possible to skip stages in certain circumstances. A group of Russian Marxists the Emancipation of Labour Group, which included Plekhanov and Vera Zasulich (later on the editorial board of Iskra) believed that the success of socialism in Russia necessitated a capitalist stage before it could move towards communism. They looked forward to the destruction of the peasant commune and the proletarianisation of the peasantry. This had been the orthodoxy. In 1868, in a letter to Engels, Marx had celebrated all that trash (i.e. the peasant commune) coming now to its end.

Vera Zasulich wrote to Marx asking for his opinion. In her letter of 16th February 1881, she stresses the importance of the agrarian question in Russia,

For there are only two possibilities. Either the rural commune, freed of exorbitant tax demands, payment to the nobility and arbitrary administration, is capable of developing in a socialist direction, that is gradually organising its production and distribution on a collective basis. In that case, the revolutionary socialist must devote all his strength to the liberation and development of the commune.

If, however, the commune is destined to perish, all that remains for the socialist, as such, is more or less ill-founded calculations as to how many decades it will take for the Russian peasants land to pass into the hands of the bourgeoisie, and how many centuries it will take for capitalism in Russia to reach something like the level of development already attained in western Europe. Their task will then be to conduct propaganda solely among the urban workers, while these workers will be continually drowned in the peasant mass which, following the dissolution of the commune, will be thrown on to the streets of the large towns in search of a wage.

She goes on to say,

So you will understand, Citizen, how interested we are in Your opinion. You would be doing us a very great favour if you were to set forth Your ideas on the possible fate of our rural commune, and on the theory that it is historically necessary for every country in the world to pass through all the phases of capitalist production.

Underlying this debate was the serious question of a revolutionary political strategy, what constituted progress from a socialist perspective, who were the allies and who were the enemies of the revolutionary movement. It was a debate about different roads to freedom and more importantly if there existed more than one way forward – a multi linear perspective.

Marx’s answer

Marx produced four drafts of his reply, totalling 25 book pages in all. In his final version, Marx stressed that the analysis contained in Capital applied only to the countries of Western Europe who had already undergone or were in the process of undergoing the transformation to capitalism. He added that he was now convinced,

that the commune is the fulcrum for social regeneration in Russia. But in order that it might function as such, the harmful influences assailing it on all sides must first be eliminated, and it must then be assured the normal conditions for spontaneous development.

Around the same time, Marx wrote to the editorial board of Otechestvennye Zapiski (Notes of the Fatherland) a journal of the Emancipation of Labour Group. In his letter he mentions a great Russian scholar and critic (the Populist theorist, Nikolai Chernyshevskii) who,

In an outstanding series of articles, he discussed whether Russia, as its liberal economists would have it, must begin by destroying the rural commune in order to pass on to the capitalist regime, or whether on the contrary, it may develop its own historical foundations and thus, without experiencing all the of this regime, nevertheless appropriate all its fruits. He, himself, pronounces for the second solution. And my respected critic would have had at least as much reason to infer from my regard for this great Russian scholar and critic that I shared his views on this matter.

Marx goes on to say,

Finally, as I do not like to leave anything to guesswork, I shall be direct and to the point…I have come to the conclusion that if Russia continues along the path it has followed since 1861, it will lose the finest chance ever offered by history to a people and undergo all the fateful vicissitudes of the capitalist regime.

This is not the response that Zasulich and co expected. The letter to Otechestvennye Zapiski remained unpublished until 1887 and the letter to Zasulich until 1924.

Marx (and Engels) confirmed their revised views in the preface to the second Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto (1882), where they wrote,

If the Russian revolution becomes the signal for proletarian revolution in the West, so that the two complement each other, then Russia’s peasant communal landownership may serve as the point of departure for a communist development.

Marx’s suggestion that revolution in backward underdeveloped Russia with its peasant based economy might provide the spark for revolution in industrialised Western Europe was an anti- Marxist heresy. It was recognised as such by the Russian Marxists around Zasulich and Plekhanov. They thought themselves better Marxists than Marx himself.

Russian Populism

It was clear from his correspondence and the new preface to the Communist Manifesto that Marx had changed his mind. Marx who had been hostile to Russian populism in the 1860’s was by 1880 a supporter of the revolutionary Populist Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will). During 1870-71, Marx taught himself Russian by reading their revolutionary literature. He even defended the tactic of revolutionary terror and the assassination of representatives of the Russian state (they assassinated the czar in 1881). He particularly admired Nikolai Chernyshevskii, their main theorist.

There was a growing interdependence between Marx’s analysis, the realities of Russia, and the Russian revolutionary movement – an uncanny forerunner of what was to come in 1917
Shanin, p.4

Lenin’s use of the term populist can mislead. When using it he meant a small group on the extreme right wing of the populists. It is the equivalent to using the term Marxist to refer to the legal Marxists of Russia whilst ignoring more revolutionary trends. This has damaged the reputation of the Populists in the eyes of Lenin’s readers for over a century.

Populism was Russia’s main indigenous revolutionary tradition. The peak of its activity was during the period 1879-83. It was broken by arrests executions and exile, finally being smashed by 1887. The Populists did not accept that capitalism offered a rosy future for Russia. They theorised that because capitalism already existed in Western Europe, along with potential allies in the European proletariat, that Russia could avoid the capitalist stage and proceed straight to socialism based upon an emancipated peasant commune. This was similar to Trotsky’s concept of combined and uneven development.

The populists of the People’s Will further saw the Russian state as an oppressive and parasitic growth on the people. The state itself promoted capitalist development and was therefore the main enemy. Their conclusion was that the state must be overthrown by armed force. The revolutionary subject was the labouring classes of Russia, peasants, part-time workers and wage workers. Marx agreed. A revolution was necessary and there was in fact no economic answer to Zasulich’s question. In addition, he had become more aware of the negative aspects of capitalist development and its relationship with the role of the state in Russia. He criticised the orthodox Russian Marxists as defenders of capitalism.

Revolutionary Transition and Marx’s conclusions

In opposition to his earlier view, that in the capitalist development of England lay the inevitable future of all nations, Marx concluded that there were different roads to the socialist transition of particular societies, depending on their starting points. He seemed to be saying that capitalism is progressive only to the extent that it:

  • develops the productive forces especially human labour.
  • brings the proletariat together, increases our ability to organise and unifies the class.
  • engenders progressive revolts against itself.

Thus once capitalism has become the dominant form of society its further spread is not necessarily progressive but resistance to it usually has progressive aspects. He was also clear that peasants were not inherently reactionary, but could, in the right circumstances, as in Russia, prove vital allies of the proletariat.

Late Marx emphasized as never before the subjective factor as the decisive force in revolution. The socialist transition can only come through the organised, conscious intervention of a revolutionary subject (workers, peasants).

Our Theory and Practice Today

The insights of Marx’s final years and his acceptance that there was more than one road to socialism can help guide us in our struggles today. Looking at those, still existing, societies that have a large peasant section and/or native peoples not fully integrated into capitalism allows us, quite excitingly, to see them as potential allies rather than enemies or remnants of a bygone age that should be done away with through capitalist progress.

Indeed, history shows that resistance to capitalism is often fiercest in the transition from feudalism to capitalist society, peasant to proletariat eg. Russia 1917, Spain 1936, Vietnam, and the Zapatistas today. Following Marx I would argue that struggles against the imposition of capitalism, by non-proletarian forces linked to socialist struggles in the capitalist ‘West’ can create a path to socialism.

Incidentally this does not require romanticising pre-capitalist or peasant life, but what I am urging is that we do not dismiss all such societies as lost to rural idiocy and throw the baby out with the bathwater. Socialism will grow out of the best of native traditions. All societies have positive elements that revolutionary forces can use as a basis for forward movement and might wish to preserve in a future socialist/communist form of society. Not all socialisms emerging from capitalism will look the same.

Finding our way

A multiplicity of roads means that we have no need to assume that all societies must follow the 1917 Russian road to revolution. The Bolsheviks made this error when they interpreted events through the lens of the French revolution and so tended to underplay the uniqueness of their own situation and experience. However, that does not mean that we can’t learn from the Bolsheviks’ struggle.

We need to work out our own way forward. This requires a concrete analysis of the society and culture in which we live, looking at its strengths and weaknesses from a socialist perspective. We need the confidence and clarity to go beyond dogmatic formulations. Each one of us has a responsibility to participate to the best of our ability in the democratic decision making of our working class parties, trade unions and other organisations. This means overcoming the narrow anti – intellectualism which has been a constant feature of the British Left. We all have the potential to become organic intellectuals, that is thinking activists.

What is progress?

An important part of this process will be redefining, as Marx did, what constitutes progress. What is progressive is determined by our vision of a post – capitalist, Communist society. Such a society will certainly be one of abundance. However it should be as much about an abundance of free time to spend in unalienated activity as much as an abundance of life’s material necessities. We need bread – and time to smell the roses too. What should we seek to preserve as progressive of our contemporary world? The guidelines are few but we could start with that which is ecologically sustainable, collective and democratically controlled by those it affects.

Marx’s Marxism was an open philosophy in two senses. Open to the impact of new political developments like the Paris Commune, open to theoretical advances outside the political sphere in the social and natural sciences. His philosophical method excluded dogmatic political recipes that had to be rigidly applied to every situation. He was a subtle thinker and materialist recognising that each new situation required a new analysis of its specific features. Along with Lenin he recognised that the truth is concrete. Like Marx, we too aspire to an open socialist philosophy that can take on board and integrate new insights from other fields such psychoanalysis, feminism, ecology and even rival philosophies such as Anarchism.

For Marx studying and engaging with other viewpoints was not about defending his own sacred texts but was about clarifying, deepening and correcting his world view, to the point of abandoning or reversing, if necessary, long held opinions. As the man said, doubt everything!

Bob Goupillot


Rosemont F. Karl Marx and the Iroquois in Arsenal – Surrealist Subversion, page 201, Black Swan Press.

Shanin, T. Late Marx and the Russian Road: Marx and The Peripheries of Capitalism London:Routledge and Kegan Paul (1984)

Wheen, F. Karl Marx, Fourth Estate, London, paperback (2000)

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