As we have seen in yesterday’s post (“Marx on automation” 1/13/2014), Marx maintained that the proletarian class would be able to discern the emancipatory potential of automation, and therefore it would become a revolutionary class as automation emerges. Marx believed that the organizing activities of the working class that he had encountered in Paris constituted the first stages in the formation of such a revolutionary proletarian movement. He believed that the proletarian revolution would triumph, since human social evolution is driven by technological development, and since the proletarian revolution would be integrally tied to the more technically-advanced system of automated industry. Thus socialism would be established on a foundation of advanced and automated industry; ownership of the factories would be collective; private property would be abolished; class distinctions would be eliminated; governments, which exit only to promote the interests of the dominant classes, would not be necessary; and human emancipation from oppressive forms of work and from domination of one social group by another would be established.
The proletarian revolutions in the advanced sectors of the world-economy anticipated by Marx did not triumph. On the other hand, popular revolutions triumphed in regions that did not have the technological conditions that, in Marx’s interpretation, would provide the material foundation for the socialist society. As a consequence, charismatic leaders in the popular revolutions reformulated Marx’s analysis, adapting it to the particular conditions of their nations. Among the concepts that would be reformulated was Marx’s notion of the proletariat at the vanguard of the revolution.
In Russia at the time of the Russian Revolution, 80% of the laboring population was engaged in agriculture. In adapting Marx to this reality, Lenin continued with Marx’s concept of a working-class vanguard, but he revised it, calling for a worker-peasant revolution led by the proletariat (Trotsky 2008:229-32, 748).
In his classic three-volume work on the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky maintains that there were particular factors in Russia that determined that industrial workers would have advanced political consciousness. He notes that Russia’s industrial production, although a much smaller part of the economy than was the case in the United States, Great Britain or Germany, was much more concentrated: In Russia, the percentage of industrial workers who were employed in large enterprises of 1000 or more workers was more than double that of the United States, Great Britain, or Germany. This was a result of the fact that investment in industry in Russia was coming from the core region of the world-economy, and it was invested in industries that had evolved to concentrated large-scale industry in the West. Russia thus skipped the evolution from small-scale to large-scale and moved directly to large-scale enterprises. As a result, the Russian proletariat was a young proletariat, rapidly formed from displaced peasants who had been placed in large-scale occupational settings. Under these conditions, the revolutionary consciousness of the Russian proletariat rapidly developed, and it became more advanced than that of the Russian peasantry as well as that of the Russian petit bourgeoisie. Thus the proletariat during the Russian Revolution was able to provide the peasantry with leadership and a program. Given these subjective conditions, it was necessary for the proletariat to be at the vanguard of the revolution, to lead the peasantry and the other popular sectors in the revolution (Trotsky 2008:3-12, 26-39).
In the case of Vietnam, where the peasantry comprised 80% of the population, Ho Chi Minh continued with the Marxist-Leninist concept of a worker-peasant revolution led by a working class vanguard. But his formulation was based on a dynamic view of Vietnamese economy and society. He envisioned that peasants would gradually move in stages to agricultural producers’ cooperatives, and that this process of social development, accompanied by agricultural modernization, would lead to the conversion of peasants into agricultural workers. He envisioned a similar social process contributing to the formation of political consciousness among urban workers, as they voluntarily formed cooperatives among craftsmen and other individual workers. And he believed that intellectual workers would gradually learn manual labor, so that ultimately the difference between mental and manual labor would be eliminated. Thus he envisioned that the nation ultimately would consist overwhelmingly of workers in agriculture and industry, who would possess increasing levels of social and collective consciousness, with some of the workers also committed to intellectual work. On the basis of this dynamic long-range view of the economic and social development of Vietnam, Ho was committed to the formation of a working-class vanguard of the revolution (Ho 2007:155-57, 168, 170-71).
Like Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro was formed in the context of a patriotic anti-colonial nationalist struggle in which the petty bourgeoisie played a fundamental role on the ideological plane. But unlike Ho, Fidel did not spend his formative years in the Soviet Union and under the direction and guidance of the Communist International. As a result, Fidel tended to appropriate more freely from Marxism-Leninism, and he was much more inclined to speak of a popular revolution and a popular vanguard rather than a working-class revolution and vanguard, although he sometimes invoked the latter in particular contexts.
So there are important examples of charismatic revolutionary leaders who appreciated the particular social, historical, and intellectual context of Marx’s formulation and who creatively adapted his formulation to their own national contexts. In contrast to these creative adaptations, there is the example of the Progressive Labor Party in the United States in the late 1960s, which strictly applied the Marxist concept of the working-class vanguard, even though it was obvious to even the most casual observer that revolutionary consciousness among middle class students of the time was far more advanced than that of the working class, as a result of various factors, including the reformist (as against revolutionary) orientation of labor organizations and the ideological contradictions experienced by middle class students of the period, which provoked a student movement. The rigid and uncreative application of Marxist concepts is one of the reasons that the Revolution of 1968 in the United States failed, a phenomenon that we will examine in future posts.
Ho Chi Minh. 2007. Down with Colonialism. Introduction by Walden Bello. London: Verso.
Bottomore, T.B., Ed. 1964. Karl Marx: Early Writings. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Marx, Karl. 1963. The Poverty of Philosophy. New York: International Publishers.
__________. 1967. Capital, Vol. I. New York: International Publishers.
__________. 1970. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. New York: International Publishers.
__________. 1973. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. New York: Random House, Vintage Books.
Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. 1948. The Communist Manifesto. New York: International Publishers.
__________. 1965. The German Ideology. London: Lawrence & Wishart.
Trotsky, Leon. 2008. History of the Russian Revolution. Translated by Max Eastman. Chicago: Haymarket Books.
Key words: Third World, revolution, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, democracy, national liberation, sovereignty, self-determination, socialism, Marx, Marxism, Leninism, Cuba, Latin America, world-system, world-economy, development, underdevelopment, colonial, neocolonial, blog Third World perspective, proletarian revolution, working class