Leon Trotsky

The History of the Russian Revolution

Volume One: The Overthrow of Tzarism

Volume 1: Appendix I
(to the chapter Peculiarities of Russia’s Development)

The question of the peculiarities of Russia’s historic development, and, bound up therewith, the question of its future destinies, lay at the bottom of all the debates and groupings of the Russian intelligentsia throughout almost the whole of the nineteenth century. Slavophilism and westernism resolved this question in opposite ways but with similar dogmatism. They were replaced by the theories of the Narodniks and Marxism. Before the Narodnik theory conclusively faded out under the influence of bourgeois liberalism, it long and stubbornly defended the idea of a completely unique course of development for Russia, a detour around capitalism. In this sense the Narodniks continued the Slavophile tradition, purging it however of monarchist-churchly-Pan-Slavic elements, and giving it a revolutionary-democratic character.

In the essence of the matter the Slavophile conception, with all its reactionary fantasticness, and also Narodnikism, with all its democratic illusions, were by no means mere speculations, but rested upon indubitable and moreover deep peculiarities of Russia’s development, understood one-sidedly however and incorrectly evaluated. In its struggle with Narodnikism, Russian Marxism, demonstrating the identity of the laws of development for all countries, not infrequently fell into a dogmatic mechanisation discovering a tendency to pour out the baby with the bath. This tendency is revealed especially sharply in many of the works of the well-known Professor Pokrovsky.

In 1922 Pokrovsky came down upon the historic conception of the author which lies at the basis of the theory of Permanent Revolution, We consider it useful, at least for readers interesting themselves not only in the dramatic course of events but also in revolutionary doctrine, to adduce here the more essential excerpts from our answers to Professor Pokrovsky published in two issues of the central organ of the Bolshevik Party, Pravda, July 1 and 2,1922:

Concerning the Peculiarities of Russia’s Historic Development

Pokrovsky has published an article dedicated to my book: 1905, which demonstrates – negatively, alas! – what a complex matter it is to apply methods of historic materialism to living human history, and what a rubber-stamp affair is often made out of history even by such deeply erudite people as Pokrovsky. The book which Pokrovsky criticises was directly called out by a desire to establish historically and justify theoretically the slogan of the conquest of power by the proletariat, as against the slogan of a bourgeois democratic republic, and also that of a democratic government of the proletariat and the peasantry ... This line of thought produced a very great theoretic indignation on the part of no small number of Marxists, indeed an overwhelming majority of them. Those who expressed this indignation were not only Mensheviks, but also Kamenev and Rozhkov (a Bolshevik-historian). Their point of view in broad outlines was as follows: The political rule of the bourgeoisie must precede the political rule of the proletariat; the bourgeois democratic republic must be a prolonged historic schooling for the proletariat; the attempt to jump over this stage is adventurism; if the working class in the West has not yet conquered the power, how can the Russian proletariat set itself this task? etc., etc. From the point of view of this pseudo-Marxism, which confines itself to historical mechanisms, formal analogies, converting historic epochs into a logical succession of inflexible social categories (feudalism, capitalism, socialism, autocracy, bourgeois republic, dictatorship of the proletariat) – from this point of view the slogan of the conquest of power by the working class in Russia must have seemed a monstrous departure from Marxism. However, a serious empirical evaluation of the social forces as they stood in 1903 – 05 powerfully suggested the entire viability of a struggle for a conquest of power by the working class. Is this a peculiarity, or is it not? Does it assume profound peculiarities in the whole historical development or does it not? How does it come that such a task arose before the proletariat of Russia – that is, the most backward (with Pokrovsky’s permission) country of Europe?

And in what consists the backwardness of Russia? Merely in the fact that Russia is belatedly repeating the history of the western European countries? But in that case would it be possible to talk of a conquest of power by the Russian proletariat? This conquest, however (we permit ourselves to remember), was actually made. Where lies the essence of all this? In that the indubitable and irrefutable belatedness of Russia’s development under influence and pressure of the higher culture from the West, results not in a simple repetition of the Western European historic process, but in the creation of profound peculiarities demanding independent study.

This deep uniqueness in our political situation, which led to the victorious October revolution before the beginning of the revolution in Europe, had its roots in the peculiar correlation of forces among the different classes and the state power. When Pokrovsky and Rozhkov quarrelled with the Narodniks or liberals, demonstrating that the organisation and policy of czarism was determined by the economic development and the interests of the possessing classes, they were fundamentally right. But when Pokrovsky tries to repeat this against me, he simply hits the wrong mark.

The result of our belated historic development, in the conditions of the imperialist encirclement, was that our bourgeoisie did not have time to push out czarism before the proletariat had become an independent revolutionary force.

But for Pokrovsky the very question which constitutes for us the central theme of the investigation, does not exist.

Pokrovsky writes: ’To portray the Moscow Russ of the sixteenth century on a background of general European relations of that time is an extremely alluring enterprise. There is no better way to refute the prejudices prevailing until now even in Marxist circles about the ‘primitiveness’ of those economic foundations upon which the Russian autocracy arose,” And further: “To present this autocracy in its real historic connections, as one of the aspects of commercial-capitalist Europe ... that is an undertaking not only of extraordinary interest to the historian, but also of extraordinary educational importance for the reading public: there is no more radical way of putting an end to the legend of ‘peculiarities’ of the Russian historic process.” Pokrovsky as we see, flatly denies the primitiveness and backwardness of our economic development, and therewith relegates the peculiarities of the Russian historic process to the sphere of legend. And the whole trouble is that Pokrovsky is completely hypnotised by the comparatively broad development of trade noticed by him and also by Rozhkov in sixteenth century Russia. It is hard to understand how Pokrovsky could make such a mistake. You might indeed imagine that trade is the basis of economic life and its infallible measuring rod. The German economist Karl Bucher twenty years ago tried to find in trade (the path between the producer and the consumer) a criterion of the whole economic development. Struve, of course, hastened to transport this “discovery” into the Russian economic science. At that time the theory of Bücher met a perfectly natural opposition from the Marxists. We find the criteria of economic development in production – in technique and the social organisation of labour – and the path followed by the product from the producer to the consumer we regard as a secondary phenomenon, whose roots are to be found in that same production.

The large scope, at least in a spatial sense, of Russian trade in the sixteenth century – however paradoxical from the standpoint of the Bücher-Struve criterion – is explained exactly by the extraordinary primitiveness of Russian economy. The West European city was a craft-guild and trade-league city; our cities were above all administrative, military, consequently consuming, and not producing, centres. The craft-guild culture of the West formed itself on a relatively high level of economic development when all the fundamental processes of the manufacturing industries had been distinguished from agriculture, and had been converted into independent crafts, had created their own organisations, their own focuses – the cities – and at first a limited (belonging to local districts), but nevertheless stable, market. At the basis of the medieval European city therefore lay a comparatively high differentiation of industry, giving rise to regular interrelations between the city centre and its agricultural periphery. Our economic backwardness, on the other hand, found its expression in the fact that craft, not yet separated from agriculture, preserved the form of home industry. Here we were nearer to India than to Europe, just as our medieval cities were nearer to the Asiatic than the European type, and as our autocracy, standing between the European absolutism and the Asiatic despotism, in many features approached the latter.

With the boundlessness of our spaces and the sparseness of the population (also a sufficiently objective sign, it would seem, of backwardness) the exchange of products presupposed a mediating role of trade-capital on the broadest scale. This scale was possible exactly because the West stood at a far higher level of development, had its own innumerable demands, sent out its merchants and its goods, and therewith stimulated our trade turnover with its extremely primitive, and in a certain measure barbarian, economic basis. Not to see this immense peculiarity of our historic development means not to see our whole history.

My Siberian boss (I spent two months entering poods and arshines in his ledger), Jacob Andreievich Chernykh – this was not in the sixteenth century, but at the very beginning of the twentieth – enjoyed an almost unlimited rulership within the limits of Kirensky county, thanks to his trade operations. Jacob Andreievich bought up furs from the Tunghuz and bought in the parish contributions in kind from the priests of more remote districts, imported calico from the Irbitsk and Nizhni-Novgorod market, and above all supplied vodka. (In the Irkutsk province at that epoch the monopoly had not yet been introduced.) Jacob Andreievich was illiterate, but a millionaire (according to the value of the decimal in those days, not now). His “dictatorship,” as the representative of trade capital, was indubitable. He even always talked of “my little Tunghuzi.” The city of Kirensk, like Verkholensk and Nizhni-Ilimsk, was a residence of sheriffs and magistrates, kulaks in hierarchical dependence one upon another, all kinds of officials, and a few wretched artisans. An organised handicraft as the basis of city economic life I did not find there, neither guilds, nor guild holidays, nor trade leagues, although Jacob Andreievich counted himself a member of the “second League.” Really this live bit of Siberian reality carries us far deeper into an understanding of the historic peculiarities of Russia’s development than what Pokrovsky says on this subject. That is a fact. The trade operations of Jacob Andreievich extended from the midstream of the Lena and its eastern tributaries to Nizhni-Novgorod and even Moscow. Few trades of Continental Europe can mark off such distances on their maps. However, this trade dictator – this “king of clubs,” in the language of the Siberian farmers – was the most finished and convincing incarnation of our industrial backwardness, barbarism, primitiveness, sparseness of population, scatteredness of peasant towns and villages, impassable country roads, creating around the counties, districts and villages in the spring and autumn floods a two-months’ swampy blockade, of our universal illiteracy, etc., etc. And Chernykh had risen to his commercial importance on the basis of the Siberian (mid-Lensky) barbarism, because the West – “Rassea,” “Moskva” – was exerting pressure, and was taking Siberia in tow, creating a combination of nomad economic primitiveness with alarm clocks from Warsaw.

The guild craft was the basis of the medieval city culture, which radiated also into the village. Medieval science, scholasticism, religious reformation, grew out of a craft-guild soil. We did not have these things. Of course the embryo symptoms, the signs, can be found, but in the West these things were not signs but powerful cultural economic formations with a craft-guild basis. Upon this basis stood the medieval European city, and upon this it grew and entered into the conflict with the church and the feudal lords, and brought into play against the lords the hand of the monarchy. That same city created the technical premises for standing armies in the shape of firearms.

Where were our craft-guild cities even in a remote degree similar to the western cities? Where was their struggle with the feudal lords? And was the foundation for the development of the Russian autocracy laid by a struggle of the industrial-commercial city with the feudal lord? By the very nature of our cities we had no such struggle, just as we had no Reformation. Is this a peculiarity or is not it?

Our handicraft remained at the stage of home industry – that is, did not split off from peasant agriculture. Our Reformation remained at the stage of the peasant sect, because it found no leadership from the cities. Primitiveness and backwardness here cry to the heavens ...

Czarism arose as an independent state organisation (again only relatively independent within the limits of the struggle of living historic forces on an economic foundation), not thanks to a struggle of powerful feudal cities with powerful lords, but in spite of the complete industrial feebleness of our cities and thanks to the feebleness of our feudal lords.

Poland in her social structure stood between Russia and the West, just as Russia stood between Asia and Europe. The Polish cities knew already much more of guild craft than ours did, but they did not succeed in rising high enough to help the kingly power break the barons. The state power remained in the immediate hands of the nobility. The result: complete impotence of the state and its disintegration.

What has been said of czarism relates also to capital and the proletariat. I cannot understand why Pokrovsky directs his rage only against my first chapter dealing with czarism. Russian capitalism did not develop from handicraft through manufacture to the factory, because European capital, at first in the trade form and afterwards in the finance and industrial form, poured down on us during that period when Russian handicraft had not in the mass divided itself from agriculture. Hence the appearance among us of the most modern capitalist industry in an environment of economic primitiveness: the Belgian or American factory, and round about it settlements, villages of wood and straw, burning up every year, etc. The most primitive beginnings and the latest European endings. Hence the mighty role of West European capital in Russian industry; hence the political weakness of the Russian bourgeoisie; hence the ease with which we settled accounts with the Russian bourgeoisie; hence our further difficulties when the European bourgeoisie interfered.

And our proletariat? Did it pass through the school of the medieval apprentice brotherhoods? Has it the ancient tradition of the guilds? Nothing of the kind. It was thrown into the factory cauldron snatched directly from the plough. Hence the absence of conservative tradition, absence of caste in the proletariat itself, revolutionary freshness: hence – along with other causes – October, the first workers’ government in the world. But hence also illiteracy, backwardness, absence of organisational habits, absence of system in labour, of cultural and technical education. All these minuses in our cultural economic structure we are feeling at every step.

The Russian state encountered the military organisation of Western nations standing on a higher political and cultural level. Thus Russian capital in its first step ran into the far more developed and powerful capital of the West and fell under its leadership. Thus the Russian working class in its first steps also found ready weapons worked out by the experience of the West European proletariat; the Marxian theory, the trade union, the political party. Whoever explains the character and policy of the autocracy merely by the interests of the Russian possessing classes forgets that besides the more backward, poorer and more ignorant exploiters in Russia, there were the richer and more powerful exploiters in Europe. The possessing classes of Russia had to encounter the possessing classes of Europe, hostile or semi-hostile. This encounter was mediated through a state organisation. Such an organisation was the autocracy. The whole structure and history of the autocracy would have been different if it had not been for the European cities, European gunpowder (for we did not invent it), if it had not been for the European stock markets.

In the last epoch of its existence the autocracy was not only an organ of the possessing classes of Russia, but also of the organisation of European stock markets for the exploitation of Russia. This double role again gave it a very considerable independence. A sharp expression of this is the fact that the French Bourse made a loan for the support of the autocracy in 1905 against the will of the party of the Russian bourgeoisie.

Czarism was shattered in the imperialist war. And why? Because it had under it a too low-grade productive foundation (“primitiveness”). In military-technical matters czarism tried to fall in line with more perfected models. It was every way assisted in this by the more rich and cultured Allies. Thanks to this fact czarism had at its disposal the most finished weapons of war, but it had not, and could not have, the capacity to reproduce these weapons and transport then (and the human masses also) on railroads and waterways with sufficient speed. In other words, czarism was defending the interests of the ruling classes of Russia in the international struggle, while relying upon a more primitive economic basis than her enemies and allies.

Czarism exploited this basis during the war mercilessly – devoured, that is to say, a far greater percentage of the national wealth and the national income than her mighty enemies and allies. This fact finds its confirmation on the one hand in the system of war debts, on the other in the complete ruin of Russia ...

All these circumstances, which immediately pre-determined the October revolution, the victory of the proletariat and its future difficulties, remain totally unexplained by the commonplaces of Pokrovsky.

Chronological Table    |    History of the Russian Revolution    |    Appendix II

Last updated on: 1 February 2018