Misunderstandings Regarding Proletarian Leadership and the Peasant Question in Marxism

“Present-day thinking on Marx and Engels’s strategy is often muddled by a curious misunderstanding. We tend to visualise a contrast between ‘developed’ countries like Germany, France and England on the one hand and ‘backward’ ones like Russia on the other. But how ‘developed’ were countries like Germany, France and England in 1848 or 1871? Only in England did the working class, if defined in an extremely loose sense, form a majority of the population. In France, and even more so in Germany, it formed a small minority. As soon as one realises that in Marx’s lifetime France and Germany were overwhelmingly peasant countries, his comments on revolutionary strategy in such states acquire a different significance from the one usually attributed to them.

In the Manifesto, the German communists were advised to join with the bourgeoisie against the absolute monarchy and its feudal hangers-on. But after the democratic revolution the workers should *immediately* begin the struggle against the bourgeoisie. The overthrow of the monarchy was the ‘immediate prologue of a proletarian revolution.’ Two years later, Marx and Engels expected a revolution of the petit bourgeois democrats. Subsequently, the proletarians should again *immediately* form ‘revolutionary workers’ governments’ in order to ‘make the revolution permanent, until all more or less propertied classes are removed from power, [and] state power has been conquered by the proletariat.’ Although the completion of this process would take a ‘rather long’ period, there was no hint of waiting with the second, proletarian, revolution until the workers formed a majority of the population. A few months later, Marx ridiculed those communists who aimed for an immediate proletarian revolution in Germany. He warned the workers that they might perhaps be fit to rule only after fifty years of civil war. But in 1856 he regained his optimism. The victory of the ‘proletarian revolution’ in Germany depended on the possibility of backing it up by a ‘second edition of the Peasant War.’ Under such conditions, its chances of success looked excellent.

As we saw in the previous chapter, Marx called for a ‘dictatorship of the working class’ in the predominantly peasant France of 1850. He expected the peasants to accept the urban proletariat as their natural leader, because only an ‘anti-capitalist, proletarian government’ could stop their social degradation. And once the French peasants understood where their true interests lay, then, Marx said, ‘*the proletarian revolution will obtain that chorus without which its solo song becomes a swan song in all peasant countries*.’ And Marx and Engels did not hesitate to call the Commune a workers’ government. Had Paris been triumphant, the peasant majority would have recognised the ‘spiritual leadership’ of the cities, and the workers as their ‘leaders and educators’, their ‘natural representatives.’ Hunt quotes a particularly interesting comment by Marx in his 1874-75 notebooks on Bakunin, which summarises Marx’s view on the matter very well:

A radical social revolution depends on particular historical conditions of economic development; they are its prerequisites. Thus a revolution is possible only where, together with capitalist production, the industrial proletariat occupies at least an important place within the population. And to have any chance of success it must mutatis mutandis be able immediately to do at least as much for the peasants as the French bourgeoisie during its revolution did for the French peasants of the time.

‘An important place within the population’–no more. In summary, in the predominantly peasant countries of the continental Western Europe of his day, Marx hoped for the establishment of democratic republics under proletarian minority governments supported by the peasantry.”

– Erik van Ree, “The Political Thought of Joseph Stalin”


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