The late Marx, Lenin and the Russian Road
1. Shanin's Thesis
Shanin's thesis in The Late Marx and the Russian Road is that Marx, in
the twilight of his life, substantially reconsidered his views of the
typical path of capitalist development, on the gounds that the communal
property forms of the Russian peasantry, is a basis for socialism.
Shanin's argument is based on an essay by the Japanese Marxist Wada.
Whilst Shanin's intent is to overthrow Lenin's reputation, Louis Proyect
extends the thesis, arguing that Lenin, too, came round to see the
virtues of the peasant commune.
Shanin's thesis is, to put it mildly, extremely tendentious based on
forcibly imaginative misreadings of some already ambiguous materials. It
is, in the words of Derek Sayer and Peter Corrigan, whose essay is
reproduced in the same volume, 'special pleading with a vengeance' (The
Late Marx and the Russian Road, p80).
2. Many Marxes?
The method of subdividing Marx has always been a suspect one, whose
purpose is generally to distance Marx's reputation from his own work.
Louis Althusser was the most famous proponent of different Marxes,
counterposing the humanist work of the young Marx, that offended his own
anti-humanist project, from the scientific mature Marx. Althusser's
counterposition has long been exposed as nothing more that Althusser's
discomfort with Marx's own attitudes, and unsustainable in the face of
the continuity of the Marx's humanism. Why does Althusser's theory
depend on such a forced re-reading of Marx, instead of simply developing
his own ideas? Because Althusser needs the reputation of Marxism as a
theory of socialism to serve as an 'origin myth' for his own theory; by
formulating his own anti-Marxist ideas with the outward appearance of
Marxist orthodoxy, Althusser seeks to overthrow Marxism from within.
Shanin's division between Marx the dogmatic theorist of stages, and the
late, enlightened Marx is even more obviously hostile to Marxism. Shanin
moved in two worlds, the Soviet Union, where Marx's reputation was
artificially associated with a reactionary regime, and the sociology
department in Manchester, where Marx was still well considered. Shanin's
comparatively dismissive attitude towards the main body of Marx's work
reflects the waning authority of Marxism in the Western intelligentsia.
So Shanin is cavalier in his dismissal of Marx's writings on colonialism
('an embarrassment', p 6), in Capital ('unilinear simplicities of the
evolutionist scheme', p5) and so on. In fact Shanin's hostility to Marx
is undisguised, and the attempts to present his criticisms as a
differentiation between the late Marx and his predecessor are lazy and
off-hand, as if merely going through the motions of doffing his cap to
Marx, for the purposes of making his attack more palatable to his fellow
In substance the differentiation of many Marxes is only a staging post
on the way to dumping Marxism altogether. Marx's work did of course
develop in his life, and where he felt he needed to correct a previous
theory, he did (as for example in the development of the category,
labour-power, in place of the less precise, labour). But in seeking to
play off the 'evolutionist Marx' against the 'more subtle' late Marx is
just a caricature.
3 The caricature of 'stagism' - an attack on historical materialism
Shanin's caricature of Marx as a theorist of a predetermined stages of
social development is hardly original - it is the bread and butter of
the postmodernist critiques of Marx, such as Baudrillard's Mirror of
Production. Like the postmodernists the caricature the Marx believed in
pre-determined stages of social development is a straw man - Marx never
believed any such thing. But the purpose of the critique is not just to
ridicule Marxism, but, by sleight of hand, to attack Marx's historical
materialism, which is falsely identified with the theory of pre-destined
social stages. The caricature is easier to criticise than the actual
theory, so presenting Marx as a theorist of predetermined stages makes
it possible to rubbish historical materialism, without ever really
engaging with it.
This caricature argument starts by artificially identifying Marx's
thought with the sociologists Comte and Spencer, who clearly did hold
the point of view criticised. Comte believed that society passed through
a predetermined ladder of magical, religios, metaphysical and finally
rational stages. Spencer thought similarly, making the development one
that was naturally predetermined.
These sociological theories of stages do indeed deserve the criticisms
levelled against them as teleological and determinstic theories that
impose a pre-conceived schema onto real events, and force the facts to
fit the theory. But to associate that with Marx's historical materialism
is an argument of wilful dishonesty.
Marx's view was that, in the course of creating their means of
subsistence, men enter into definite social relations of production.
These social relations differ according to the level of development of
the productive technique. A low level of productivity would of course
limit the social possibilities. With only limited communications, a
society would be parochial in its character. Where land was the main
resource, social relations would be tied to the land.
Those who are hostile to its outcome have often caricatured Marx's
historical materialism as a technological determinism. But it is no such
thing. In no sense does Marx say that social development follows a path
predetermined by technology. What he does say is that social change
cannot happen without the material conditions that make it possible.
Communism on the basis of scarcity would be quite different from
communism on the basis of abundance. Utopian socialists have often
believed that socialism was a matter of dreaming up a better world. But
social change does not come through dreams alone - it must be based upon
the material possibilities available.
The idealist view of history was seriously shaken by historical
materialism, and has struggled to challenge it ever since Marx first
outlined it. The caricature that Marx believed in a predetermined
development of social stages is part of the idealists' caricature of
Marx. But what Marx believed was quite different. He saw that different
epochs opeated according to their own specific historical laws, and that
these could be analysed in their own specificity. Contrary to those
idealist historians who saw history as a simple continuum, Marx
counselled that different societies should be analysed in their own
The point of view that the laws of production of each society were
specific to that society, is now caricatured as a 'stagist' theory of
history, by those like Shanin and Baudrillard who want to free
themselves of Marx's conclusions. But far from being a theory of
predetermined stages, historical materialism does not see the course of
history as laid down from outside.
When Marx talks of different stages of development, he does not see
these stages as a predetermined pattern, but only as an empirical fact,
based upon real investigations of history and anthropology. Because
Marx's method is scientific and not idealist, his conclusions are
provisional upon the evidence. Marx was relaxed about taking on board
the anthropological findings of Morgan, and Richard Jones. He could
afford to be relaxed, because, as a scientist, he was not committed to
any particular finding. If better material could be found then the
theory could be developed further. This empirical attitude to historical
development is entirely at odds with the idealist view of stages of
development, in which evidential materials existed to be forced into a
preconceived schema. But Marx had no such preconceived schema. The
desirability of enriching his historical investigations was always
important to him, and his provisional views of the patterns of social
development always open to refinement or outright revision.
In the specific case of Shanin's caricature we can see how Shanin
falsely counterposes the dogmatic Marx of capital, with the curious and
free-thinking old gentleman of the Russian investigations. But only a
cretin could see Marx's work on Capital as dogmatic. His openness to the
material, and to reconsidering and refining his assessment on the basis
of new materials is legendary. That he should then go on to investigate
Russian conditions with the same spirit of openness is not the
transformation that Shanin makes it, but a continuation of Marx's
lifelong approach to scientific rigour.
Far from contradicting Marx's approach to the development of Capitalism
in Western Europe, his interest in the potential for social change in
Russia is a continuation of that enquiry.
4. The specifics of Shanin's case
In the preface to the second Russian edition of the Manifesto, Marx and
Engels write this carefully worded challenge to the Russian
'Can the Russian Obschina, a form albeit heavily eroded, of the primitve
communal ownership of the land, pass directly into the higher communist
form of communal ownership? Or must it first go through the same process
of historical dissolution which marks the West's historical development?
... 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 land-ownership may serve as the point of
departure for a communist development.' (21 January 1882)
This passage has been the source of hot controversy since. But it is
worthwhile noting that the stylistic sweep conceals guarded
qualifications: 'If' proletarian revolution complements revolution in
Russia, then communal landownership 'may' serve as a point of departure
for communism, even though these communal forms of land are already
Marx is far from seeing that the Russians can avoid industrial
development. On the contrary, he sees industry as a precondition for any
positive development of the Russian peasant commune. As he explains in
his letter to the populist Vera Zasulich:
'While it [the commune] has in common land ownership, the basis of
collective appropriation, its historical context - the contemporaneity
of capitalist production - provides it with ready made materials for
hugescale common labour. It is therefore able to incorporate the
positive achievements of the capitalist system without having to pass
under its harsh tribute.' (The Late Marx, p89)
The conditions under which the peasants could get hold of advanced
Western technology are a proletarian revolution in the West, which would
give them the new technology they need for large scale production as
socialist aid. In substance Marx's view has not changed since he wrote
in the 1874: 'a radical social revolution ... is only possible where
with capitalist development the industrial proletariat occupies at least
an important position among the mass of people' (a condition which was
fully justified by later events). Marx went on to deride Bakunin for his
expectation that 'the European social revolution will take place at the
level of the Russian or Slavic agricultural and pastoral peoples.' (The
Late Marx, p80).
5. The judgement of history
Marx was dependent on Cherneyevsky as a source for his writings on the
Russian commune. Cherneyevsky exaggerated the extent of the survival of
communla landownership, as Lenin later showed in on Capitalist
Deveolpment in Russia. In practical terms the peasants did not
constitute a secure basis for the revolution. At best they were
untrustworthy allies. At worst they were a fifth column for the market
within the young Soviet state. Far from being a basis of collective
property, the countryside was the main arena of petty production and the
area of greatest influence of pro-market ideology after the revolution.
Lenin's struggle against the Narodniks' romantic theories of the peasant
revolt were a vital precondition for the development of revolutionary
Marxism in Russia.