Commentary Magazine

The Study of Man: Marxism & the Colonial Revolt

The Western world is facing two great revolutionary currents—the Marxist onslaught, represented chiefly by Soviet and Chinese Communism, and the colonial revolt, aimed at throwing off Western control where it still exists in non-Western areas. How can we assess the significance of these revolutionary currents? Do they reflect some deep-lying defect in Western institutions, some intolerable iniquity ingrained in these institutions and curable only by revolution? And will the two currents finally merge, confronting the Western world with an overwhelming and mortal challenge?

Three significant books dealing with these revolutionary challenges from different viewpoints have recently appeared. Taken together, they throw considerable light on the problems involved.




Marxist thought relates the problem of revolution to socioeconomic arrangements, “production relations” that become outworn, maladaptive, and, finally, intolerable. In due time, when capitalism reaches the last stage of its development, revolution becomes unavoidable. This approach to the problem of revolution exerts a great suggestive influence beyond the Marxist camp. Actually, however, revolutionary Marxism is emerging more and more, not as a successor to capitalism but as a phenomenon parallel to it, an alternative method for building an industrial society from primitive, pre-capitalist, mercantilist, and feudal antecedents. Where revolutionary Marxism has triumphed, it has not completed and transcended but duplicated the capitalist process of superimposing an urban and technological economic civilization upon a rural, pre-industrial one. This has been the role played by revolutionary Marxism in Russia and China; in the underdeveloped areas, where a similar initial situation exists, it bids fair to repeat the performance.

It is reasonable to conclude from this that today’s revolutionary Marxism is alien in its essence from what Marx and his immediate followers had in mind. By seizing power in largely agrarian Russia, one is led to argue, Lenin parted company with Marx. This was lucky for Marxism as a political movement, for had capitalism matured, the conditions for a Marxist, proletarian revolution would no longer have been given. But for Marxism as a doctrine, such an anomalous triumph was a disaster. Marxism could achieve power only by showing up the unrealistic nature of its founder’s original vision.

Plausible as this argument may be, it has been vigorously challenged by a profound and original book, The Unfinished Revolution, by Adam B. Ulam.1 To take the Marxian doctrine as being all of a piece, Ulam maintains, would be a fundamental misunderstanding. It is, in fact, a combination of heterogeneous, nay, contradictory elements. True, one of these is the sequential law, according to which capitalism must run its course before the advent of socialism; and neither Lenin’s revolutionary achievement nor the actual developments in advanced capitalist societies can be squared with this law. Still, the sequential theory is not the whole of Marxism.

Ulam isolates within the Marxian doctrine a revolutionary message which is independent of the sequential law, inspired not by theoretical speculation about the final stage of capitalism, but by the felt reality of capitalism’s nascent stage. As a revolutionary, Marx voiced the feelings of the uprooted, “alienated” country people, disastrously transplanted from the oppressive and narrow but still meaningful rural world into the “dark Satanic mills” of incipient industrialization. The only response possible for this first, newly uprooted generation of industrial workers was total, anarchist revolt. And it was the anarchistic condemnation of industry and industrial civilization as such—coexisting in Marxism with its opposite, the glorification of industrial technology—which attracted the proletariat of the early industrial age to Marxism as a revolutionary creed. This anarchistic-revolutionary strain in Marxism, essentially a rural protest against industrial degradation, was, however, perfectly consistent with Lenin’s strategy of the “premature” seizure of power, and with the alliance with the peasantry which made that seizure possible. It was not a pragmatic disregard for the spirit and letter of Marxian doctrine but, on the contrary, a total “immersion” in Marxism, which enabled Lenin to evolve his victorious revolutionary strategy. Lenin’s Marxist critics, Ulam says, have overlooked the fact that “a Marxist revolution was possible in Russia precisely because [my italics] capitalism had not fully developed in the country, precisely because Russia was not ready for socialism.”

While it was the anarchistic élan of Russia’s still incompletely urbanized industrial workers and peasant masses that made the victory of the Bolshevik revolution possible, the consolidation of the Bolshevik regime, Ulam goes on to say, required the exact opposite: the total acceptance of the industrial way of life and the stamping out of anarchistic egalitarianism. This was Stalin’s work. Under him, the other side of Marxism, extolling the values of industrialism and postulating a capitalist stage as a necessary antecedent to socialism, came to the fore.

Far from liberating the “toiling masses,” Stalinism imposed upon them the full rigor of early capitalism with all its exploitative harshness. Western socialist critics have seen in this a betrayal of the Marxian doctrine; but, Ulam contends, such an accusation is as mistaken as the one leveled at Lenin’s allegedly unorthodox strategy. For Stalin’s way of constructing a socialist society was also perfectly authentic Marxism. Marx had conceived “socialism” as identical, in its basic elements, with capitalism—except for the one difference that the individual capitalist was to be supplanted by a central planning and directing agency. Socialism, in the Marxian sense, was “capitalism without the capitalists.”

According to Ulam, the full impact of revolutionary Marxism can be explained only in terms of both its components—the revolutionary anarchist protest against industrial discipline, and the socialist acceptance of the industrial order. The former gives the needed impetus for a revolutionary struggle; the latter permits the establishment of a stable political system under whose auspices the productive forces of the society can be rapidly developed. It is this duality which accounts for the triumph of revolutionary Marxism in Russia. By the same token, says Ulam, “Marxism has provided a master revolutionary formula for the underdeveloped areas. . . . There is something natural, and it would be foolish to disregard it, in the appeal of Marxism as a system of thought for an Asian revolutionary; there is something natural in the technique of the Marxist party for the political movements of the underdeveloped countries.”




Ulam’s warning against oversimplification of the Marxian concept of revolution seems to me well taken: revolution, to Marx, was not something to be postponed until capitalism had run its preordained course—that is, until all middle strata had become submerged in the proletariat. Marx himself, in his career as a practicing or aspiring revolutionist, was constantly on the lookout for revolutionary opportunities that could be seized by the proletariat in conjunction with the other classes. The sequential law implied for him only that capitalism was headed for collapse in any case in the long run, but not that the process could not be accelerated by revolutions with a mixed class basis in backward countries.

It was, of course, an essential idea with Marx that the proletarian forces participating in such revolutions would eventually have to seize total control (if possible), turning upon their temporary partners and depriving them of every influence. But this was precisely what the Bolsheviks did by annihilating the Social Revolutionaries and relegating the peasantry to a subordinate position. Bolshevik revolutionary strategy in backward Russia was authentically Marxian in this respect too; and Communist revolutionary strategy in other underdeveloped countries has followed the same authentic pattern. The strategy involves deception. In the initial stage, the Marxists pretend to accept the pluralist basis of the revolution; they pose as sympathetic partners of the peasants, or, in colonial and semi-colonial areas, of the “national bourgeoisie.” This acceptance of pluralism is conditional; the real objective is always to replace pluralism by the dictatorship of the proletariat as soon as the partners can be dispensed with.

Marxist doctrine demands a concentrated effort to progress from pluralism to unified, dictatorial “proletarian” rule in premature revolutions. But this transition, to my mind, cannot be construed as a switch from one set of motives, rural anarchism and anti-industrialism, to an antithetical one, devotion to the industrial way of life. The early Bolshevik regime under Lenin was neither “anarcho-syndicalist” nor anti-industrial in its outlook. It was not Stalin who started disciplining the proletariat; Lenin’s system of “War Communism” already amounted to universal forced labor. True, this policy was relaxed under the NEP (the New Economic Policy, begun in 1921), which made concessions to both syndicalism and private enterprise; but the relaxation had nothing to do with countenancing any rural revolt against the industrial way of life.

Whether in the harsh form of “War Communism” or the relatively lenient one of the NEP, Lenin’s system imposed upon the industrial workers a regime which was not just “capitalism without the capitalists” but infinitely more oppressive. Of course, it was not that “socialism” as conceived by Marx and his school was meant to be essentially identical with capitalism. For Marx (as well as for Lenin and also Stalin) it was axiomatic that the downfall of capitalism would bring an immediate improvement in the living conditions of the workers; the denial of this would have struck them as sheer blasphemy.2 Indeed, one of the reasons that extreme regimentation had to be imposed in Russia from 1918 on was that the workers, indoctrinated by the Marxists who themselves were full of illusions about the immediate effects of the introduction of “socialism,” were clamoring for impossible improvements.

The first revolutionary elan of Russia’s lower classes was nurtured by these false expectations—as well as by many other hopes, passions, hatreds, and grievances; but a rural protest against the industrial way of life, if it existed at all, played a negligible role. There was, to begin with, the terrible shock effect of the bloody, interminable, and unsuccessful war; and beyond this, the age-old ferment of Russian radicalism, pressing for a total renewal of Russia’s political and social order which would do away with the inherently corrupt, morally intolerable Czarist system. This ferment, stirring among the peasantry, the intelligentsia, the youth, and part of the gentry, antedated the beginnings of large-scale industrialization; and the “premature” revolutionary situation which the Bolsheviks exploited was largely a heritage of such early radicalism.




The record and significance of the pre-Marxist radical revolutionary movements in Russia is masterfully presented in Roots of Revolution by Franco Venturi.3 The work is admirable for its immense wealth of documentation as well as for the consummate skill with which the material is presented. Above all, Venturi succeeds in making the reader realize that the Russian nihilists and anarchists of the second half of the 19th century were more than a lunatic fringe, notwithstanding their crude utopianism and fanatic destructiveness. He shows how this proliferation of desperate conspiracies (for which he uses the generic term “Populism”) grew out of the Russian situation. A mood of extreme protest was an inevitable response to the miscarriage of Czar Alexander II’s great reform, the liberation of the serfs in 1861.

Serfdom had meant an intolerable condition of personal servitude for the peasant, but the personal freedom granted him in 1861 fell far short of “real” freedom as the peasants understood it. Under the old system, the peasants felt that they belonged to the landlord but that the land belonged to them. The liberation decree gave them no unconditional property rights in either the seigneurial lands or the common lands which they had tilled. This denial of land tenure not only deprived the peasants of the kind of economic security they had had under serfdom; it also outraged their elementary concepts of justice. Thus, based upon principles totally alien to the peasant way of thinking, the liberation opened up a moral chasm between the Czar and the people.

The Populists, mostly impoverished noblemen or struggling intellectuals who passionately identified themselves with the submerged millions of rural Russia, gave these feelings of outrage articulate expression. But, Venturi shows, the outstanding characteristic of Populism was that the Populists themselves did not share the peasant mentality and were totally devoid of any romantic admiration for the sacred, traditional, spiritual aspects of Russian folk culture. They looked, on the contrary, exclusively to Western Europe for intellectual guidance. They all described themselves as socialists and avidly followed the radical political literature of the West; the writings of the Saint-Simonists, Fourier, Proudhon, Marx, and many other socialist system-builders and advocates of revolution were their bread and butter.

From our present perspective, a brand of socialism concerned chiefly with peasant land tenure looks rather odd; but to the Populists, the old Russian form of communal landholding, the obshchina, embodied the ideas of the most advanced Western socialist thinkers. Thus, Russia would be reborn as a “society of equals,” or as a “phalanstery”—or under any other form one might choose to symbolize an egalitarian communist Utopia—as the peasants took common ownership of all the land; then, all other branches of production could be organized on a communal or cooperative basis. The Populists wanted to bypass capitalistic industrial developments: Russia was to avoid going the way of the West, not by cultivating her own separate traditions, but by tearing down her useless and outworn political system and realizing at one stroke what the “best,” most advanced Western thinkers were merely dreaming about. The West was hampered by its history: it was unable to rid itself of its past precisely because its inherited institutions were still viable. But in Russia, whatever existed was good only for the dust heap. In particular, all existing forms of authority and hierarchy were evil—morally unacceptable. One had to begin with a tabula rasa.



The Populists’ conception of socialism, needless to say, was unrealistic in the extreme; theirs was truly a lost cause. Their onslaughts, renewed after every failure, led only to the scaffold or Siberia; and when the revolution eventually triumphed, it disfranchised the peasants instead of giving them their “real freedom.” And yet the heritage of Populism was essential to later revolutionary developments. Against the background of their struggle, which created a powerful myth, gradualism or moderate opposition looked pale and futile. While in the West the fantasies of the early socialist system-builders only appeared—dimly—at the fringe of the intellectual spectrum, in Russia they acquired intellectual respectability, thanks to the Populists; thus socialism remained on the agenda not merely as a serious political possibility, but, in the eyes of many earnest intellectuals and students, as the only genuine alternative to the status quo. It was also the Populists who evolved both the type of the full-time, professional revolutionary and the clandestine organizational techniques which the Bolsheviks were to utilize later.

Populism exerted its greatest historical impact, however, by its radical denial of the legitimacy of Russia’s political authority structure. Until the Populist onslaught, the legitimacy of the monarchic system had not been in doubt. To the peasants (even when they were in open revolt), the Czar was the natural head of the social family—the fountainhead of justice. Only the Czar could set things to rights, because only he had a God-given mission to dispense justice. If the Czar was bad, he could be forced to be good, he could even be replaced by a better Czar; also, one could combat the functionaries and hangers-on who distorted the Czar’s justice. But society without the Czar was unthinkable: the family could not exist without its head.

It was the Populists, as Venturi explains, who first undermined this atavistic loyalty. The Populist thesis held that the precondition of justice was the elimination of the Czar and of the whole hierarchical system depending on him. They thus put the political question—who is morally entitled to rule the society?—first and foremost. This priority remained unchanged for all radical left groupings that followed—including the Marxists.

For it seems to me clear that the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary strategy was guided, not by the idea of the class struggle, but by the idea of the capture of governmental power. This is why the strategy was effective. In great revolutions, what takes place is not one class combatting another, but a combination of elements from the different classes attacking a ruling center. Such an attack will succeed where there is a general consensus—regardless of the conflict of class interests—that the existent top authority has no moral claim to represent the society. This was the consensus that crystallized in Russia during the First World War, and led to the moral isolation of the Czar and his inner ruling circle. It was the Bolsheviks who exploited the power vacuum thus created. That Czarist rule lost its legitimacy, however, was to a large extent owing to the original ferment by the Populists.




Today, in the anti-colonial revolts of our time, the central element is again lack of legitimacy: the colonial peoples deny the colonizing powers’ claim to represent them. That claim, of course, had validity only within the international legal system established and maintained by the concert of the great colonizing powers themselves—the colonials had merely endured alien representation. Thus, the colonial revolt differs in its inner mechanism from the domestic revolutions of the West. It is not directed against a ruling center that purports to be representative, but against a type of rule which, in fact, operates without recognition by the subject society of its representative nature. The core of the colonial revolt is the rejection of a legal world order which discriminates between societies, granting sovereign status to some but denying it to others.

Put in these terms, the issue of colonialism versus independence seems perfectly straightforward and simple: colonial rule robs the subject society of an inherent right and hence must be rejected unconditionally. The colonizers’ argument that primitive and uncivilized people cannot govern themselves is taken to be sheer cant. Primitive societies may, to be sure, lack the necessary administrative skills, and need help from the more advanced societies. But this need for help does not entitle the helpers to set themselves up as rulers. Whenever independence is claimed, it must be granted: this is the philosophy of the United Nations, fully endorsed by the United States.

Yet, if we take a closer look, the issue appears not quite so simple. It is admittedly wrong to perpetuate alien rule over societies that want to be, and can be, self-governing. But it does not therefore follow that a fair and just world order can be established by adhering simply to the rule of granting independent statehood, without further ado, to any group that demands it. Such a rule is apt to break down as different groups put forward conflicting claims. And, in any case, recognition of the sovereign status of a newly established government may fail to result in true self-government in the area under jurisdiction.

The problems involved in the transition from colonial rule to self-government are clearly and cogently discussed in On Alien Rule and Self-Government by John Plamenatz.4 The author weighs a number of arguments for and against colonial rule. His conclusions are far from adding up to a justification of colonialism, but he does point out certain weaknesses in the unqualified anti-colonial position often put forth both by Americans and Russians. The chief error Plamenatz argues against is that of equating “independence” with “freedom.” Can a people be free without safety of person and property, without free speech, without political democracy? Yet these are not necessarily guaranteed by independence in itself. Independence movements, once having come into power, often adopt authoritarian or totalitarian methods. Indeed, the tremendously difficult practical problems they are confronted with may leave no other course open. For one thing, the population might be too heterogeneous or backward to make genuine democracy viable. Above all, the dominant problem of underdeveloped countries, poverty, calls for tremendous efforts of development. Such efforts cannot be pushed forward at great speed, with a limited amount of foreign help, unless the society’s energies are mobilized and coordinated under a strong, centralized leadership, silencing all opposition.

No total popular mobilization under dictatorial control is needed for development where slow evolutionary methods are sufficient. The problem arises only where the people are becoming progressively poorer, and there is no prospect in sight of reversing the trend without a drastic, radical operation. Now, colonial powers cannot initiate a tremendous spurt of rapid industrialization and modernization. Only a fanatical native leadership dedicated to modernization can be ruthless enough to squeeze the necessary effort out of the population. In fact, the best instrument for mobilizing the people for building up an industrial system rapidly under conditions of extreme hardship is a socialist ideology, which persuades the workers that they are building their own power.

This ideological approach was exploited to the hilt in Russia’s and China’s “premature” revolutions, and it is plausible to assume that newly independent colonial societies, too, must rely on it in tackling their own developmental tasks. One can argue (as Ulam does) that Marxian ideology is “natural” for anti-colonial revolutionaries—not, to be sure, for the reason advanced by Ulam that the revolution can win only on a wave of rural protest against the industrial way of life, but on the grounds that that ideology alone is capable of mobilizing the people for rapid development efforts. The argument looks strong at first glance; yet its validity is open to doubt.

We must realize (as the Communists do) that the first stage of colonial revolt is necessarily pluralistic. The Communists’ problem is to advance from the pluralistic to the dictatorial, totalitarian stage. The historical record shows that this transition has never been effected through ideological persuasion, but—as observed so far—by means of civil war, or military occupation, or a coup d’état engineered conspiratorially. During the pluralistic stage, the Communists have always been forced to deny that they were seeking dictatorial control over the common people. The ideological instrument for mobilizing the population for developmental work could be used only after power was secured by other means than ideological persuasion. It would be unprecedented if people in the colonial areas were to rally en masse to the Communist elements among them, thus allowing themselves to be subjected to the patterns of the Soviet and Chinese development.



Now it is true that the argument from historical analogy is not always decisive: one cannot dismiss the possibility of something happening just because it has never happened before. Today, awareness of the need for rapid development is more widespread in the colonial areas than it ever was in Russia and China before the Communists took over, and the Soviet and Chinese example might call forth emulation. However, as Plamenatz points out, the bulk of the people in the underdeveloped areas simply show no eagerness to be subjected to the heroic cure for underdevelopment administered by Communists. There is no stampede to Communist banners for enrollment in the forced labor brigades. It is only the core group of fully indoctrinated local Communists that cherishes such prospects—but the world Communist leaders know that mass support cannot be enlisted on this platform. The technocratic, dictatorial elements of the Communist ideology cannot be used to generate mass consensus in the underdeveloped areas. Nationalist and national socialist ideologies are far more effective in this respect.

What this implies is not that a Communist take-over in underdeveloped areas is excluded as a real possibility but only that in seeking their goal, the Communists must rely on indirect and conspiratorial political methods, or armed violence in civil war. They can, for example, gain political strength in a pluralistic setting and then turn upon their gullible partners and dupes—as in Cuba—or build up a civil war potential through outside aid where geographical conditions favor this—as in Laos. It is in this way that a confluence of the anti-colonial and Marxian revolutionary currents can be effected, and not through any spontaneous rallying of the bulk of the population to the party as the agent of industrialization and modernization.

Even short of anything like a complete Communist take-over, however, a coalescence of the two currents can take place also. Such nationalist regimes as Nasser’s, for example, while not Marxian in their domestic organization, are apt to align themselves with the Communist bloc in the arena of international politics. This type of coalescence poses a powerful challenge to the West—a challenge which obviously cannot be met by setting up barriers against a Communist take-over by coup d’état, revolution, civil war, or infiltration. Plamenatz convincingly argues that where cooperation between nationalist regimes and the great Communist powers is the problem, the West cannot protect its interests by policies defined in terms of ideological pro-Communism and anti-Communism. Bolstering sharply anti-Communist regimes, for example, is no satisfactory solution in the long run where these regimes lack a truly representative, legitimate character and stand in constant danger of being overthrown, say, by a nationalist coup d’état combined with a pluralistic mass upheaval. Such situations call for an elastic, indirect approach. The Communists have recognized this; they operate in a flexible and pragmatic way. Our counter-action must be equally flexible. It would be ironical in the extreme if the West, in trying to defend pluralism and freedom against the encroachment of totalitarianism, were to let itself be outmaneuvered by following a line of action dictated by ideological rigidity.




1 Random House, 307 pp., $5.00.

2 What Marx said in the Critique of the Gotha Programme was that socialism, by paying everyone “according to his work,” would improve upon capitalism which paid people only what their work capacity (Arbeitskraft) was worth—but that this socialist principle still fell far short of the final ideal of paying everyone according to his “needs.”

3 Knopf, 850 pp., $12.75.

4 Longmans, Green & Co., 224 pp., $5.00.

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