Regarding the History and the Psychology of Russian Marxism

Sub Specie Aeternitatis, Ch. 19.

Regarding the History and the Psychology
of Russian Marxism

(1906 – #126)

It is of interest for us to trace the fate of the ideas of Marxism, a fate woeful and strange, since these ideas with their seeming triumph ultimately have gotten lost. Our Marxism not so long ago was a trend in ideas, full of vigour and youth, it gave an upsurge to mental inquiries, it prompted a respect for knowledge, it called forth a social science for deciding the fates of Russia, and seemingly introduced a certain cultural aspect into the barbaric norm of our intelligentsia, it fought against the old stereotypes, all the stuck in a rut aspect. Back then it was a struggle of ideas. But the god of historical irony transformed Marxism into a struggle of powers, gave it a grip on life, when the ideas of Marxism began to decay and unravel, when the two souls, alive within classical Marxism — the scientifico-realist and the religio-utopian — separated and rose up in revolt each against the other. In this distancing off of scientific realism from the religious utopianism must be seen the essence of the crisis of Marxism, its inner decay, whereof Russian social democracy, as a mighty struggle of powers, attempts to preserve within it the two souls, an inner concord, completely bereft of the idea of Marxism, forgetful of its cultural conquests.

In the year 1899, K. Kautsky wrote to me: “The Russians are called to further develope theoretical Marxism. Thanks to the absolutism, the Russians have time for this. In Russia the social movement is still all a struggle for cognition, and not for power”.1  These were welcome words for us, being then Russian Marxists, and they received unique a commentary in the furthermost developement of Russian thought and the societal aspect. Within Russia were made attempts at the utmost theoretical developement of Marxism, and without boasting it can be said, that the Russian critical Marxists displayed great strength of thought and greater an audacity, than the German Bernsteinists [Eduard Bernstein, Marxist Revisionism], but the result as obtained for Kautsky’s expectations and for Marxism was ruinous. It showed, that there could not be a furthermost theoretical developement of Marxism, that every effort of free thought leads to a decisive crisis and dissolution of doctrine. Critical Marxism was soon transformed into an already total non-Marxism and even into an anti-Marxism as regards an insurmountable inner logic and psychology.

The utmost searchings and creative attempts transpired along two distinct paths — the scientific and realistic, and the religious and idealistic, since the system of classical Marxism was simultaneously both a system scientific and a system religious, was both a real politics and an eschatological vision.

Thus it was in the realm of ideas, but in life was produced a grievous struggle with that selfsame absolutism, which according to the paradoxical opinion of Kautsky, gave us time to develope further the ideas of Marxism. The intelligentsia began a struggle for power with the ideational capital of the old Marxist apperception. And with social democracy in fatal a manner there ceased all mental life, any critique. The sacredness of dogma was safeguarded, since with it easily and sweetly one could struggle for power, since with it as it were the realism of life could be blended with religion, and in the irrational mystique of revolution it is not easy to distinguish the real evil of the day from the eschatological expectations. The social democratic ideas began to reign, they took hold the hearts of the masses, although obscured by the trappings of the widescale revolution happening in Russia. Social democracy became as it were the expresser of Russian revolution, and the tragedy of the position herein is in this, that from its realistic point in Russia is happening however not a socialistic revolution, but rather a political liberation of the people, in which the working class plays a visible, but subordinate role.

And herein the realistic and scientific ideas of Marxism are consigned to oblivion, and there instead triumphs only the mystique of “the class point of view” and social revolutionism. In former times the Marxists heatedly and brusquely came out against populism and the old revolutionary utopianism, they pointed out this truth, that in Russia is developing and would further develope a capitalistic production, that there is no overleaping nor skipping the “bourgeois” order, that the most immediate political tasks can only be a “bourgeois” revolution, guaranteeing rights and freedom for the ultimate struggle. In contrast to the populists and the old “insurgents”, the Marxists were constitutionalists and social evolutionists. The basic scientifico-realist idea of Marxism was the principle of the developement of the “material forces of production” — this was the basis of all social developement and all social arrangement, and from hence was deduced the class struggle and class perspective. For scientific Marxism absurd and utopian would be the thought, that amidst whatever the condition of the productive forces of a land it is possible to get in the 8 hour working day, and that the social power of the working class can grow in non-conformity with the economic position of a land, merely as the result of the political efforts of the social democrats. The realist spirit of Marxism — is in the idea of productivity, an incessant victory over nature, and thereof is thus to be deduced a distributive justice. But in Russian Marxism imperceptibly there has occurred a populist-utopian regeneration, the realist ideas got choked out under the onrush of revolutionary emotions. There appeared instead the inclination to overleap and skip the “capitalist” order with its social-political forms, to disdain political freedom, as a good which is merely “bourgeois”, and imperceptibly to substitute in place of a revolution “bourgeois” instead a revolution “social”, to which at present they consider it possible to enter upon. The subjective class psychology won out on top of the objective idea of social evolution. In “bourgeois” revolution exclusive dominance would have to belong to the socialistic proletariat, and the “bourgeoise”, to which is consigned everything not social democratic, ought not however to play any sort of role — herein is the paradoxical deduction from this “class psychology”. Only Plekhanov, the most intelligent and cultured of the Russian social democrats, did not ultimately lose his Marxist head and he appealed to the Marxist conscience. All the victory-telling arguments of Marxism against “insurrectionism”, against the old revolutionism, against the ignorance of governing the material culture, were forgotten. There remained only the eschatology of Marxism, the faith in a near-off kingdom of truth upon earth, the proletariat-socialistic righteous judgement, a faith, sundered off from its material basis with social developement. Who, however, is the culprit of the mental decadence of Russian social democracy, the forgetting of Marxist ideas in the struggle of revolutionary forces? This culprit is obvious — the autocracy and its fanaticism, defining the character of the Russian revolution. The reactionary outrages by the government systematically have cultivated the idea of a social revolution and have fed that psychology, in which passions political pass over into passions religious, and politicians are transformed into fanatics. Amidst such tenseness, in such obfuscation it is impossible to hold grip upon human souls without requital. The idea of a social revolution is included within the system of Marxism. But in the Russian actuality it ultimately became distorted, and the social democrats blindly hold dear this distortion.

That history is full of every sort of “revolution”, this — is a fact, and it would be absurd to speak about the possibility or impossibility of suchlike a fact. The textbooks of history relate about these “revolutions”, and suchlike a sort of “revolution” tends to be happening before our very eyes. This — is the traditional understanding of the word revolution, nowise containing within it any sort of sociological world-view, not presupposing any sort of theory of social developement.

Altogether different is the matter of a social revolution within the understanding of Marxism. The social revolution, which the social democrats await, rests upon a definite sociological theory of social developement and outside of this theory it possesses no sort of meaning. This Marxist social revolution is not a fact, which can be wished for or not wished, this — is a false theory, an optical illusion. A “social revolution” there never was and never will be, although every revolution has its own social side. The system of Marxism is to the highest degree a fanciful and uncritical intertwining of the sociological understanding of the word revolution together with a police mentality view, and this is rooted down into the basic twofold aspect of Marxism. This was shown in the well-known dispute of Bernstein and Kautsky. And P. B. Struve has well written about this in the “[Heinrich] Braun Archive”. But this problem has remained obscured within the social democrat consciousness.

It is not difficult to define the outward signs of revolution in the traditional sense of this word, and they are purely negative. When the prisons get filled up, when there are demonstrations on the streets, when one part of the populace is battling against the soldiers and the other part, when there occur various excited events, prompting government repression, then ordinarily it is said, that there is a revolutionary movement in the land. What is revolution, and what is not revolution, is set by the police of the state, as the gauge for determining revolutionism.

And it has become an indubitable historical truth, that revolutions are created by reaction, and independent of reaction they possess no sort of content, as such, i.e. as revolutions. Revolutions are characterised not by a radical end, not by a profound regeneration of societal existence and the nature of man, but rather by passion in reaction against the evil of the past, against oppression, against reaction. The content of revolution therefore is very difficult to characterise in creative definitions, in a forward orientation. The revolutionary, as a psychological type, always is oriented backwards, only with his negative attachment rooted in the past, from which his consciousness cannot tear itself away, only the oppression, stirred up in him by forces of the past, the old, and they render him a revolutionary.

The psychology of revolutionism in its essence is negative, oriented backwards, without upsurge, its pathos fed by the hypnotic grip of the evil of the past, and creative taking wing is impeded by whatever manner fond hatred towards the past.

The revolutionary indeed cannot live without the reactionary, without oppression, without prisons and police, his life is not enriched, but the rather impoverished by the vanishing of these detested phantoms, deprived of its pathos. In this — is the limitedness and conditional aspect of that, which we term revolution, and in this — is the moderateness and insufficient radicality of all revolutionism. Turn the glance forward, to be freed from the nightmare, and the pathos of revolution vanishes. It becomes evident, that the oppression by the gendarmes and police has imbued the revolutionaries with a definite hue of colour, and that the red colour was merely the mirroring of the blue uniforms, that the revolutionary nature was created by coercive rule. Revolutionism never glances down into the depth of things, it always remains at the surface, it is always conditional, relative and “in reaction to”,2  in it there are embodied no sort of radical affirmations. The psychology of revolutionism, for the human person always crippling and darkening its awareness, the awareness of the radical, the finalative ends of life, is an historical tragedy, begotten in fatal a manner of the historical power of gloom and oppression. And revolutionism is inescapable in the world, while there is repression, reaction, treachery, while the police of the state, created by every earthly power, brandishes its imprint upon life. Similar like a revolutionism plays no small role in the psychology of Marxism, worked out in the revolutionary atmosphere of the year 1848 and sustained by the political reaction in Germany, a land all still of the police, run by a bureaucracy, from which always one can expect plottings against society and the people. But what such is however a “social revolution”, a revolution in the sociological, and not police meaning of the word, a revolution, which the social democrats reckon as their specialty?

“Social revolution” is the Marxist understanding of social evolution. Marxism most of all insisted upon the evolutionary character of the social process, for Marxism every societal turnabout can only be the product of socio-economic evolution, every shift in the distribution of goods is dependent upon their production, upon a building sort of social process. The one half of Marxism, the scientific-real, is a denial of social revolution, the denial of a social turnabout, since it sees the essence of the social process in an incessant affirmation, in a social enrichment, in economic creativity. That which are called political revolutions, can be thought of in negative terms, could abolish the autocracy, can topple the monarchy, can change the form of governance and even remove every power, but the fate of socio-economic developement is wholly dependent upon the positive, upon productivity, and here by negation alone nothing is to be attained except impoverishment, i.e. a social regression. Marxism calls for an increase of productivity and enrichment, for a victory over nature by economic accomplishment. Marxism makes pretense to the organising of human sustenance, to resolve the problem of daily bread, and it would seem not its affair to disorganise the economy, to deny the indigent under the stricture of a social revolution. The epochs and types of the economic developement of mankind get measured by enormous spans of time, and herein are no sorts of abrupt breakthroughs.

It is scientifically established, that the transition from a natural economy to a capitalistic one is a process multi-centuried, not completed even at present, and the socialisation of production, from which perchance can be expected a better organisation of sustenance and greater distributive justice, in scientific-realistic a sense is conceivable only as multi-centuried, a complex and manifold process, indistinct within the enigmatic mystery of the future. And for a realistic science, of which the Marxists are so fond, there is permissible only an evolutionary and reformatory socialism, by which construct can a social crash be averted. But the social democratic faith in a social revolution is an anti-scientific and even anti-Marxist utopia, it is a religious thirsting and eschatological hoping. For the social democrats, connected with a social turnabout is a faith in the onset of a kingdom of God upon earth, as it were the end of history with a struggle of contraries, as it were the principle of some supra-historical process.

In Germany the faith in a social Zusammenbruch [crash] underlies the reactionary politics of the government and the reactionary outlook of the bourgeois classes. Social democracy indeed — is the sole liberal party in Germany, and it happens to wage the struggle for freedom and rights, for which all liberals ought to be struggling. In this tense, oppressive political atmosphere grow the intimations of possible political revolutions, and with them in fated a manner gets blended in an enormous social cataclysm. There could occur still ten revolutions, but with this ultimate social revolution, which the believers await, these other revolutions will have nothing in common with it. And still to a greater degree this can be said for Russia. With us the hopes for a social revolution are fed by a reactionary regime, an unbridled despotism, by a constant awaiting of a clash with those holding power, of that feverish atmosphere, by that vexation, which is created by searches, arrests, banishments, executions, by the inexcusable economic oppression of the people. The course of Russian history, characterised by the progressive aspirations of society and by the stubborn reactionism of the authorities, has raised us into a spirit of extremes. For us everything seems, that it is either sink or swim, either all or nothing, either autocracy and an utmost degree of economic oppression, or a republic and socialism.

In the elements of revolution the whole historical perspective gets lost sight of. The penchant for rights, for the benefits of freedom, have not been worked out among us. The aspect of being accustomed to oppression was so great, that the foundation, the social creativity, they tended to leave out of the building plan, and it seemed sufficient but to abolish the exploiters, in order to become rich and in order for social justice to obtain. They thought to attain moreso, than what there is in Western Europe, and everything because that we had so little, we were so miserable and downcast, so that out of gloom and terror the dreams blazed up. Here is why the dreamy side of Marxism won out among us, and its realistic ideas were forgotten.

The chief service of Russian social democracy has been primarily the cultural enlightening. It was in the developing of awareness in the working masses, enlightening them, the implanting of socio-evolutionary ideas. Marxism has been quite insistent upon this, that the fundamental regeneration of the societal fabric is dependent upon the developing of the productive powers of the land and of the awareness of the masses. But then the brutal tactics of Pleve and the jacobinism of the bureaucracy inspired in the intelligentsia a jacobin mindset of societal change. The enlightening of awareness was substituted for by agitation alone, which never indeed gets down to the depth of things.

Against the idea of social revolution can be advanced two sorts of objections, with various ends. First of all, social revolution is contradictory to the evolutionary understanding of social developement, is contradictory to the very nature of the economic process.

This is a purely scientific, realist argument, included also within Marxism itself. But social revolution is contradictory also to the idea of a constructive societal creativity. Faith in creative freedom, in the constructive efforts of people is incompatible with an elemental sort of constructing a new societal aspect by way of externalistic and fatal catastrophes, by way of accretal of evil, as somehow passing over into its opposite; this faith desires to regenerate society by a changing of the consciousness of people, wants incessantly to renew the societal fabric and by this as such to render unnecessary a fatal cataclysm. Within Marxism indeed there is also a large anti-jacobin part, there is the teaching about change of consciousness of societal classes, as the sole path towards freedom. It should not be a bother for us now to remember both truths: either the realist thought concerning societal evolution, in which it is impossible to simply overleap entire periods and impossible also to transform social poverty into social wealth, or the realistic thought concerning the changing of the consciousness of people, concerning the regeneration of society by efforts of free a spirit. I am somewhat apart from the ideas of Marxism, but a certain dose of Marxism I would consider useful for prescribing to our social movement. They will grasp all this, when the socio-economic problems are consciously posited in all their alacrity and thus force back onto a secondary level plane the problems political, and this will quickly happen, since it will be needful for us to eat.

But by my critique of “social revolution” I have not the intent of saying, that not in any instance and not in any sense is it impossible. A totally non-constructive, a purely destructive “social revolution” is possible, to it people can be led, but this would transpire already upon a religio-mystical, and not socio-positivist, plane. I know only, that a new sociability aspect is never created by a social revolution, but rather that the mystical side of social democracy inclines it towards a social revolution, and herein begins a chiliasm, opposite the Christian, an illusory dream about a thousand year kingdom upon earth, but already not with Christ, rather with another god. Against this are possible neither any scientific, nor political arguments, this is of an altogether different plane, and to converse here necessitate different a language.

We desire a neutral social developement, a neutral social medium,3  the feeding of mankind and leading it out of a beastly condition, but not the transforming of social passions and illusory dreams into a religion, since only with a neutral human medium are we able to concur as regards our own religion.

N. A. Berdyaev


©  2013  by Fr. S. Janos

(1906 – 126(3,19) – en)

K ISTORII I PSIKHOLOGII RUSSKOGO MARKSIZMA. The article was first published in weekly socio-political culturo-philosophic journal “Polarnaya zvezda”, 1906, No. 10, p. 678-686. Later incorporated by Berdyaev within his 1907 book, “Sub Specie Aeternitatis”, Chapter 19 (p.427-436) in year 2002 Moscow Kanon reprint edition.