Revisiting Marxist Theory of Peasant Revolution

Marxism is primarily a political doctrine based on proletarian ideology, where proletariat is understood as modern working class. Karl Marx and Frederic Engels laid bare the exploitative core of capitalism and by the same token, found the proletariat to be the most revolutionary social force in the age of capitalism who can realize socialism on earth and that is the succinct basis of their ‘Scientific Socialism’ (as against various utopian versions). In that sense proletariat is to be understood as the most progressive and revolutionary force probably in history too. However, it is less so for any inherent nobleness ingrained in characteristics of this class and more because of its unique positioning in capitalist society, where ‘proletariat can’t unchain itself without unchaining other oppressed classes’. Quite naturally such all-liberating revolutions were only to be expected to begin in industrial Europe, rest of the world expected to follow suit.

But movement of history has hardly ever followed a teleologically determined trajectory and post-Marx moments of revolution (socialist) have been no exception. They refused to follow the predictable (and perhaps predicted!) Marxist path. It took not only a zig-zag but a seemingly contradictory course. Anti-capitalist revolution never took place anywhere in the soil of advanced capitalism but progressively, during the first half of the twentieth century, shifted its epicenter towards the periphery including the hinterland, with very poor or no development of capitalist social polarization.

This apparent anachronism has hardly ever been taken up for understanding with enough theoretical rigor by the Marxists of the posterity. Despite revolutionary movements changing course rather decidedly, Marxist revolutionary discourse didn’t see any matching modification. In the era of socialist revolutions in peasant-dominated countries after WWII, where peasantry created unmatched history of bravery, sacrifice and creativity under the leadership of Communist Parties, ‘proletariat’ still maintained its pride of place as far as epistemology is concerned! Marxists accepted peasantry to be the axial force of revolution, which though had to be ‘led by the proletariat’, even where proletariat remained a miniscule minority and were practically not in a position to play any revolutionary role. This is rather anachronistic. If some leading ideology is what is being meant by ‘leadership of the proletariat’, then communist parties’ leading role should suffice. In those situations, according vanguard-ism to the proletariat a priori is hardly intelligible as history doesn’t come with much evidence to support it and is fraught with dogmatism, the result being a theoretical disaster. On the contrary, peasantry, despite playing heroic leading role in so many revolutions has not been able to impress Marxist theory and remained rather neglected in the Marxist discourse!

Even great revolutionary leaders Mao or Ho-chi Minh, for example, who led socialist revolutions in peasant-dominated countries with great success, failed to offer any window of hope to get rid of such anachronism. They did come up with some theories of Marxist peasant revolution, but for some reason, they meticulously maintained, in theory, the ‘proletarian leadership’ on the peasant revolutions. As a result, in the extant Marxist discourse, proletariat had maintained its privileged position and peasantry relegated to secondary position. This seems to us improper and borders on theoretical absurdity, may have long term implications in building socialism and hence needs to be re-visited. This implies failure to appreciate the role of peasantry in a holistic manner and turns socialism into a rather narrowed down affair. May be pondering over the issue in sufficient depth may spring few surprises in answering questions related to degeneration of socialism to stale state capitalism in the contemporary world.

In view of this some detailed review of the genesis of such theory in the light of hisory seems necessary in order to overcome such theoretical paradox which confuses the legions of young people joining the communist movement.  And this will certainly help us find better ways to fight imperialist capitalist offensive where peasantry has the potential to play great role.  And that way, we suppose, it may greatly help in anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist peoples’ mobilization in many countries in the contemporary world and also pave the possibility an alternate (socialist) journey.

In this rather ambitious journey, we propose to dwell on a category of Proletariat Foncier, as the harbinger of contemporary revolutions. But before that we have to hark back into the history of social unrests, struggles and development of Marxist thought and try to find out whether this neglect of the peasantry can be justified in the light of history. Needless saying that we will do this by using Marxist methodology.

Peasant question in the days of Communist League

From the days of French revolution of the 1789 upto the first half of the nineteenth century was the period of emergence of modern machinery based capitalist production system, mostly in the textile sector. Power loom was fast expanding with the sequel of emergence of the nascent urban working class, the leader of process being England. In those tumultuous times, a movement was sweeping Europe, depicted as bourgeoisie revolution, whereby the ‘middle class’ (or the bourgeoisie, so to say) was in the process of assuming political power replacing the feudal monarchy. All the social classes were restive and involved in social action. So was the working class in the urban space. Marx and Engels, the theoretical proponents of working class playing a vanguard role in the societies of future naturally reposed faith on this fledgling working class activism who also took part in them, mostly in shaping up the theoretical ground for future. The Communist Manifesto was produced in the process.

With numerical increase of the urban workers, various reform and welfare organizations of the workers were coming into existence. The first international organization of the workers had been the Communist League, which took birth in 1836 and grew into some maturity in the European soil and lasted till 1852. In England those days were the days of Chartist movement, from which the cudgel of workers’ struggle was gradually taken over by the internationalist workers’ organizations.

It may be mentioned here that this period was also the formative years of the European nation states with the decay of feudal monarchies which was propelled by the powerful peasant uprisings in various parts of Europe. It must also be acknowledged that of these people’s rebellions, the nascent bourgeoisie (called as petit bourgeoisie, those days) was the leader and not the nascent proletariat.

The driving force of the league in those days used to be the German workers and their migrated counterparts (mostly tailors, in the nature of artisans who were by definition ‘appendage of the petite bourgeois’ class) and it could hardly be expected of them to lead the vanguard role in the contemporary revolutions. Hence in the given objectivity the revolutions could only be expected to mature in the heat of bourgeois democratic revolutions and nothing more. A strong testimony of this fact is the writing on Peasant War in Germany, written by Engels in the summer of 1850, in which he drew strong simili of the contemporary upheaval with peasant rebellion that took place in Germany 3 millennia back and rebuked the bourgeoisie for not taking enough progressive role in the mid 19th century.

However, Marx and Engels, who were revolutionaries by their first identity, were eager to see the nascent urban working class playing a leading role in the essentially bourgeois revolutions in the offing. But at least in this first phase, reality turned out not to oblige their optimism.

A retrospective analysis of the maturity of the working class and class struggle of the era (up to 1871) had been aptly put forth by G. Jaeckh, in 1904 (commemorating 40th foundation of the IWMA): 

“It was quite possible that this revolution might in the main have been a middle-class-one, but the proletarian revolution set out also at the same time, caught up the rearguard of the first, and was only driven back because the former retired into the citadel of political power.1

Objectively speaking, he accorded the working class action the rearguard status instead of vanguard, while he found the causes of their inability to assume the vanguard role in certain extraneous factors. One is free to accede to or differ with his analysis, but one thing, which perhaps can’t be disputed is that the working class was objectively playing a rear-guard role in the revolutions of European bourgeoisie, aspiring to march towards formation of modern nation states.

The mainstream working class organizations, as narrated in Engels’ book (Condition of the Working Class in England), mostly in the nature of welfarist associations, were largely under the sway of the Chartists while the militant actions of the working class were understood to be led by some secret associations. Chartism in 1835, according to Engels, was a movement among the working-men, though not yet sharply separated from the bourgeoisie’, which underwent various levels of polarizations to expunge bourgeois elements and became purely working class organizations by 1845. Chartists remained the prime representative of the working class with some rudimentary and vague ideas of socialism (“Political power our means and social happiness our aim”) in those days and there was a distinct trend of Socialist workers’ movement alongside. But rather than the socialist sections, Marx and Engels had more faith on the Chartists, simply because they were the true representatives of the mass of English workers, where socialist ideas were bound to dawn from their struggle against capitalism. The following section of the book reveals this attitude of theirs:

“There is no longer a mere politician among the Chartists and even though their socialism is very little developed, though their chief remedy for poverty has hitherto consisted in the land allotment system, which was superceded by the introduction of manufacture, though their chief practical proposition are apparently of a reactionary nature, yet these very measures involve the alternative that they must either succumb to the power of competition once more and restore the old state of things or they must themselves entirely overcome competition and abolish it.”…

“But here, too, necessity will force the working men to abandon the remnants of a belief which, as they will more and more clearly perceive, serves only to make them weak and resign to their fate, obedient and faithful to the vampire property holding class”…2

In the realm of international workers movement, from the Communist League to the First International (International Working-men’s Association) the Chartists played important role along with representatives various workers’ and socialist organizations from other European countries.

All in all however, given the stage of social development, in mid-nineteenth century, Europe was still a hugely peasant majority territory perhaps with the sole exception of England. Eric Hobsbawm, in The Age of Revolution details out the state of urbanization in Europe prior to the revolutions of 1840s. He found 78 cities in the whole of Europe, including Russia with population of 50000 0r more? England topped in the list with 17 such cities, followed by France - 9, Spain – 8, Austria including Hungary and Lombardy - 8, Russia - 6 and Germany - 4.3The situation hardly underwent any radical change in next 80 years. Descriptions of post –Paris Commune developments suggest only marginal development. The number of cities with population of 100000 or more was not more than 47 in England, 45 in Germany and only 15 in France in 1911!4

During this period in Europe, the working class was only fledgling, lacking much experience and numerically not preponderant and hence to expect a vanguard role from them might be just too optimistic.

One more thing needs to be mentioned here. The movemental landscape of the time was studded with workers’ and peasant’s movements alike and hardly were there any difference in consciousness, as exemplified by demands and form of struggle, between them, the only difference being in spatiality (urban/rural). Both of them were limited to demands of immediate nature and incendiarism as form of struggle. Engels’ seminal work, Condition of Working Class in England gives a meticulous description of the same and mentions that direct actions by workers had been organized by ‘secret associations’.5

However, in their growing theoretical gaze, overtaken by the upcoming dynamics of industrialization, the significance of peasant struggle as a change agent was already a faux pas and hence not considered. We will have to get back to this point again, but not before we go through some dynamics of the IWMA.

It would be pertinent at this point to note Marx’s own perception regarding peasantry, particularly small peasantry, the best elaboration of which is to be found in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonarparte, written in 1852: 

‘The small peasants form a vast mass, the members of which live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with one another. Their mode of production isolates them from one another, instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse. The isolation is increased by France’s bad means of communication and by the poverty of the peasants. Their field of production, the small-holding, admits of no division of labour in its cultivation, no application of science, and, therefore, no multiplicity of development, no diversity of talent, no wealth of social relationships. Each individual peasant family is almost self-sufficient; it itself directly produces the major part of its consumption and thus acquires its means of life more through exchange with nature than its intercourse with society ... Insofar as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that divide their mode of life, their interests and their culture from those of other classes, and put them in hostile contrast to the latter, they form a class. Insofar as there is merely a local interconnection among these small peasants, and the identity of their interests begets no unity, no national union, and no political organization, they do not form a class. They are consequently incapable of enforcing their class interest in their own names, whether through a parliament or through a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented.’6

Firstly it may be reminded that title holder French small peasantry was perhaps the sole example of its kind in Europe and elsewhere, which they received as result of the French revolution of 1789. Though in the vicissitudes of capitalist uncertainty their stability was running into rough, their special position should neither be lost sight of nor they be confused with the Bengal peasantry of the time, who were being rapaciously looted by the British.

Besides, in this analysis, peasantry is not portrayed as essentially reactionary or something of that ilk. If they do not qualify as a class (in itself), it is more because of lack their means of aggregation, i.e., their lack of common interest (vis-à-vis the state), organization beyond local level and political organization and not any generic characteristics of craving for holding on to private property (small piece of land). In different climes with different history of rule and exploitation, there may be various means of aggregation and organization against common exploiters (may be colonial or post-colonial imperialist agencies) these gaps may either not exist or be overcome by effort of appropriate agencies.

Uncritical acceptance of the position outlined here runs the risk of generalizations resulting in veritable prejudice against the peasantry among the post-Marx Marxists. We will see later how this prejudice actually snowballed into absurd theoretical positions in another international forum (Comintern), hindering development of revolutionary struggle in the colonies.

This should also be noted here that this understanding was not a product of meticulous study on position of agriculture and the peasantry vis-à-vis socialism, which developed much later in the 1850s and 60s with his detailed study of land, land chemistry and effect of Capitalism on them. Though Marx was never able to fully integrate his findings on agriculture and civilizations into his critique of political economy, the possibilities actually emerged later with publication of his notes on the subject by Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA2). Kohei Saito dwelt on this in much detail and observed:

“Yet, as Marx’s late notebooks became more available through the MEGA2, their careful examination will enable analysis to explain the ways Marx’s socialist project envisioned reestablishing the absolute unity in the metabolic interaction between human beings and the nature.” 7

The communist league efforts had to be temporarily put on hold in the face of state terror in 1852, unleashed to crush the mass upheavals. But by that time the League had achieved commendable success at least on three counts to have left indelible marks among the labor movement, which would nourish future movements.

Firstly, there was growing awakening regarding the possibility of a revolution among the disparate groups of communists. It was able to lay down the theoretical foundation of comprehending socialism/communism not as pure intellectual production of some brilliant minds, but as a process, intertwined with the emergence of the proletariat in material world and the growth of its self consciousness.

Secondly, it is possible for them to appreciate that capitalism is a transnational system and a revolution has to be a global one, thus also appreciating the international character of the working class. It is significant to note that the league was gradually moving away from the anarchist putsch theory and had been developing a broader perspective of revolution. Towards the end of the 1840s, according to Engels, for them “any revolution to be successful had to be a European one”. 

Thirdly, and most importantly it was possible to articulate the aims and objectives of the working class in the form of Communist Manifesto which issued clarion call: ‘Workers of all Countries, Unite’ and ‘the proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains and have a world to win’. The manifesto also able to set the priority before the working class by declaring that proletarians, despite being internationalist in core, would have to settle score with their national bourgeoisie first.

All in all a quantum jump in the consciousness took place everywhere, which got reflected in the slogan, maturing from ‘All men are brothers’ to ‘Workers of all countries Unite’ and this to happen in a span of one and a half decade was a great achievement in itself. This is how Engels viewed the success of the league. However, from the same reflection, it can be hypothesized that the composition of the working class in Europe including England was predominated by Artisans and not industrial workers who confront the industrial capitalist as their enemies. Engels wrote:

“The members, in so far as they were workers at all, were almost exclusively artisans. Even in the big metropolises, the man who exploited them was usually only a small master. The exploitation of tailoring on a large scale, what is now called the manufacture of ready-made clothes, by the conversion of handicraft tailoring into a domestic industry working for a big capitalist, was at that time even in London only just making it appearance...  The greatest honor is due to them, in that they, who were themselves not yet full proletarians but only an appendage of the petty bourgeoisie, an appendage which was passing into the modern proletariat and which did not yet stand in direct opposition to the bourgeoisie, that is, to big capital — in that these artisans were capable of instinctively anticipating their future development and of constituting themselves, even if not yet with full consciousness, the party of the proletariat.”8(emphasis ours)

So, it is not from their life reality, but by instinctively anticipating their future development, these people would be able to appreciate the importance of the party of the proletariat!

At this point the question may be asked, what political role could be expected of this class, who would attain a proletarian consciousness to be played in the revolutions of mid nineteenth century Europe other than playing a rear-guard role? And also whether Marx and Engel’s eulogization of working class as the harbinger of socialist revolution (who alone is able to take the capital bull by its horn), was based on objective reality or a mere conjecture, borne out of their own die-hard revolutionary optimism?

First International (IWMA) and the peasant question

Situation as regards development of working class, in demography and organic composition didn’t undergo any sharp turn at least till the last quarter of the century. Many chroniclers have described the last quarter as the period when industrial working class developed in the land of Europe, even in England. A lengthy reference from Eric Hobsbawm’s book The Age of Empire would be pertinent in this respect. Hobsbawm says:

“The number of people who earned their living by manual labor for a wage was indeed increasing in all countries flooded or even lapped by the tidal wave western capitalism from the ranches of Patagonia and the nitrate mines of Chile to the frozen gold-mines of north-eastern Siberia …… Yet the number of wage-workers multiplied most spectacularly, and formed recognized classes of such laborer, chiefly in the countries of old established industrialization, and the in the growing number of countries which as we have seen, entered their period of industrial revolution between the 1870s and 1914, that is to say, mainly in Europe, North America, Japan and some of the areas of white mass settlement overseas.”9

The same impression we get from another narration in the People’s History of Modern Europe by William A. Pelz:

“Although the origins of trade unions can be traced back to the medieval guilds, unionism took on new importance in the period after 1871 …  As industrial capitalism expanded and, in turn, restructured the labor process, it radically altered the lives of average people …. The last two decades of the nineteenth century saw a steady and rapid rise in the number of unionized worker.”10

The point to make here is that industrialization which makes the workers stand in direct opposition to the bourgeoisie, was objectively unavailable, by and large, during the phase when Marx actually assumed the role of an activist, in developing the international organization of the proletariat.

The situation on the eve of formation of the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA) was neither as tumultuous as in the 1840s. By Marx’s own admission, (as he expressed to Engels in a letter sometime in 1864) the situation was less ripe:

“It will take time before the revival of the movement allows the old boldness of language to be used. We must be fortier in re, suaviter in modo [strong in deed, mild in manner].”11

And even so Marx found it an opportunity to go for political activism headlong! He was perhaps motivated by events such as abolition of serfdom in Russia in 1861, the peasant uprising in Poland in 1863, struggles against slavery in US and of course, some new activism among the working class organizations (activities included the issue of Suffrage for the workers).

The IWMA was  aimed at uniting a variety of different left wing socialist, communist and anarchist groups and trade unions, which neither had a coherent approach nor a clear concept of what and how to achieve socialism.  Marx believed from day one of his activism that without a party of the working class they will not be able to achieve their goal of communism. Besides, Marx and Engels were already convinced that “any revolution has to be at least European” and hoped to develop an all Europe organization of the workers. There are evidences to suggest that Marx viewed capitalism already as a global system (if not from the beginning!) and by the same token, labor movement had to be understood as an international category. We will take up this issue in a different context later on. For now suffices it to say that Marx’s renewed interest in the formation of first international workers’ organization was basically to see a European (if not global) revolution taking place, not bounded by any national border and the Marx viewed the IWMA to be the party to lead the revolution.

However, the International didn’t succeed in bringing about any revolution and that way Marx’s dream remained largely un-fulfilled. But Marx was able to set theoretical ideological tune for the contemporary as well as future organizations aiming to achieve socialism/communism. Also the organization achieved practical successes in labour movement of number of occasions. The International was highly successful to stop employers from importing strike-breakers from other European countries, achieved through appeals issued by IWMA to their members in various countries. There were also many other instances of international supporting ailing workers in various countries. But to establish such activism in the main course of International’s modus operandi, Marx had to wage bitter fight against the Proudhonists and Owenites, who preferred striking some workable balance with their own bourgeois. Major achievements and breakthroughs of IWMA may be enumerated as follows:

  • Define revolution-ism in trade union struggle (Internationalism as the key)

One of the major fights Marx and Engels in the International is against trade unionism. Before the formation of the IWMA, Engels was concerned about the influence of bourgeois ideas on the British working class. Now Marx as well as Engels had occasions for condemning opportunism of many workers’ leaders: “these men are more or less bribed by the bourgeoisie and the government”. And in identifying the limitations in the role that can be played by the trade unions in the absence of political leadership:

“The trade unions can do nothing by themselves …. [The IWMA] is the only society to inspire complete confidence in the workers.” This, he said while taking part in a debate with John Weston, a Owenite, in 1865, which was later published as ‘Value, Price and Profit’.

To continue the argument further they went on to declare in Geneva in 1866:

“[Trade unions should be] organised agencies for superseding the very system of wage labour and capital rule.” And, “They must now learn to act deliberately as organising centres of the working class in the broad interest of its complete emancipation…. They must convince the world at large that their efforts, far from being narrow and selfish, aim at the emancipation of the downtrodden millions.”12

This is a fantastic exposition of how the class-in-itself can graduate to class-for-itself and it a fitting rebuff to those who consider trade union in itself is a sufficiently noble feat! For Marx, it was not so and the world has experienced very soon, in the next millennium, how trade unionism, bereft of a vision for socialism, got degenerated into TU bureaucracy, which is nothing but a captive body in the system of capitalism.

  • Women’s question addressed and identified as integral to proletarian revolution

The general consensus in the International was not exactly conducive for the women. Actually participation of women in the work force was opposed by many who actually wanted them to be limited in bearing and rearing child. In Geneva Congress, in 1866 Marx had to actually fight hard to turn the table in favor of women. He said:

“[V]ery great progress was demonstrated at the last congress of the American ‘Labor Union’ … by the fact that it treated the women workers with full parity; by contrast, the English, and to an even greater extent the gallant French, are displaying a marked narrowness of spirit in this respect. Everyone who knows anything of history also knows that great social revolutions are impossible without the feminine ferment. Social progress may be measured precisely by the social position of the fair sex. 13

Harriet Law, a London free thinker and the progenitor of the feminist school in workers movements was invited to sit in the General Council of IWMA and enjoyed strong support from Marx. Such nuances in Marxist concept of revolution and role women thereof usually remains rather obscure and quite often Marx is seen as a 19th century MAN with strong male chauvinist prejudices. But reality betrays something different and if Marx was not completely free of victorian prejudices, at least he challenged the same in the realm of class struggle to great effect, when it really mattered.

  • Consistently addressing issues not directly related to Capital-Labor interface

Poland’s right to self determination

Polish question had always drawn attention of Marx and Engels since the early 1840s, though Poland was not known for any significant development of industry or proletariat but was by and large under the sway of feudalism as socio-economic system. But more importantly it was under annexation of Russian Czar, considered as the seat of European reaction which had usurped polish rule over the land in the third quarter of 18th century and henceforth became an issue of national self determination. Marx and the first International viewed the issue of Russian occupation as a stumbling block in abolition of serfdom in Poland which was being fought for the polish peasants through their series of uprisings. More importantly they thought secession of Poland from Czar’s empire would weaken Russia, which would ultimately facilitate proletarian revolution in England. Whatever the reason, they persistently stood by Polish liberation, which objectively placed them by the side of the peasantry, though it hardly meant any positive evaluation of the peasantry in socialist revolution.

The Irish Question

Marx gradually developed a perspective in favor of emancipation of Ireland and considered Ireland’s independence as integral to the interest of the English working class. Marx wrote in a letter to Engels: ‘It is in the direct and absolute interest of the English Working class to get rid of their present connection with Ireland’. What was being talked about was de facto decolonization of Ireland. And it was just not an expression of benevolent working class internationalism, which also considers freedom from oppression of all oppressed entities along with its own emancipation. But for Marx, by then decolonization (emancipation of colonies) had appeared as a major condition for the emancipation of the working class of Metropolis (England), which is evident in the following section of the same letter, referred to:

 ‘… For a long time I believed that it would be possible to overthrow the Irish regime by English working class ascendancy. I always expressed this point of view in the New York Tribune. Deeper study has now convinced me of the opposite. The English working class will never accomplish anything before it has got rid of Ireland. The lever must be applied in Ireland. That is why the Irish question is so important for social movement in general.’14

  • Social empowerment of the working class

IWMA persistently worked for improvement of the general conditions of the workers, both economically and politically. Campaign for universal suffrage was one such issue which culminated in passage of Reform Bill in 1867 en-franchising the workers, excluding of course the women.

  • The High-Point of Paris Commune

Paris Commune was the high point in this whole phase. Marx was quite in touch with the French socio-economic reality, which was predominantly a peasant society and Paris known for her artisan predominance in composition of her working people. To start with Marx preferred the French members of the International to concentrate on consolidation of the workers uptil April of 1871. However, as his suggestions fell on deaf year and the communards, under powerful influence of Blanqists and Prudhonists surged ahead to assume political power, Marx like a true revolutionary, threw his lot behind them, setting aside political-ideological issues. What is noteworthy is that he had to fight hard to mobilize the General Council in support of the communards and in this he found the trusted lieutenants such as George Odger (the foremost leaders of the English working class) against him. Also noteworthy is the fact that by then England had passed the Reform Bill enfranchising the workers. Thus the pro-active role of the English workers and their leaders, which encouraged Marx to take a plunge in the International, seems to have been belying his optimism, particularly when it mattered most.

Marx revisited peasant question after two decades of hope and despair

Fall of the commune, which was inevitable for various reasons, had tremendous damaging impact on activism of the IWMA and signaled its eventual decline. After the subsequent Hague congress in 1872, Marx wanted to get back to theoretical work to complete unfinished volumes of Das Capital (Volumes 2 and 3). In an environment of frustration, working class politics in Europe was plagued by resurgence of anarchism. Spain, France being their traditional stronghold, Bakuninist made strong inroads among the European workers. So save IWMA from such influences Marx had to relocate the head quarters to New York. But nothing could save it from closing down in 1876.

In New York, after few initial successes, it was found that the IWMA was limited among the migrant German laborers with very small inroads into the main workforce of the country. Besides, there was very limited electoral success against high expectations. At this stage the IWMA made declaration in favor of formation of trade unions wherever possible, but was unable to play any international role, whatsoever.

Marx wrote to Sorge on September 27, 1873:

“According to my reading of the European situation, it will be a very good thing that the formal organization of the International shall, for the time being, be allowed to retire into the background”…. which rang the death knell of the organization.”

Engels’ approach on the issue was that of accepting the same fait accompli, albeit with a positive note. In a letter to Sorge, he wrote:

“For ten years, the International Workingmen’s Association dominated European history in one of its aspects (the aspect that looks towards the future). It can be proud of its achievements. But, in the old form, its life is over ... I think that the next International, after Marx’s writings have exercised their influence for a few years more, will be directly communist, and will be definitely devoted to the diffusion of our principles.”

Unfortunately the next International, (The Second International) did not fulfil his hopes. There was not to be a communist International until the foundation of the Third International, after the world war and the Russian revolution. That is, however, a different story and is beyond the scope of this article.

In a space of more than two decades the International oversaw many great things to happen in the realm working class struggle and offered Marx great opportunity to formulate revolutionary theories from real life experiences rather than theoretical discourse. The area involves revolutionary trade-unionism (and by the same token, reformist trade-unionism), women’s question in revolution, attitude towards nationality movements and racism and what proletariat needs to do after assuming power (dismantling of the old power structure, in the light of Paris Commune).

Throughout the whole course of 22 years, one crucial area of neglect had been the peasantry and the agrarian question. All IWMA had to say on the subject was reflected by the resolution on land nationalization. There were debates on whether or compensation has to be paid to the big land holders, but the war against private ownership of land was the only dimension addressed to on the issue.

The IWMA sided with the Polish and the Irish, which were essentially agricultural societies, without any explicit optimism on peasantry and its revolutionary role. It remained mostly centered on right to self determination and to some extent de-colonisation.

We have earlier mentioned Marx’s take on peasant question in Eighteenth Brumaire, where he sees them as rather conservative, though the position is not sacrosanct. He also leaves few threads conditioned upon subjective and objective situations which can prompt the peasantry to assume revolutionary role.

Descriptions of peasant and workers’ movement in the countryside and urban space gives us important clues to their epistemological position which privileges the urban workers as upcoming, emerging thing to the neglect of the peasantry’s role, though the rural and urban movements were not different as regards demands and forms of struggle. If immediate relief was the mainstay of demands in both cases, anarchist actions such as incendiarism held the mainstay in the action front. It is anybody’s guess, what special quality among the urban workers precisely caught the gaze of the founders of Marxism to the severe neglect of the peasantry. If urban workers were to be considered the force of the future, peasantry and the rural proletariat were by no means to obliterate into insignificance in any foreseeable future, unless the gaze severely constrained by Euro-American frontiers.

Hence, it was hardly surprising to see Marx not mentioning the name of peasantry in his analysis of fall of Paris Commune (Civil War in France). In this treatise, he exposed hypocrisies of Bismark and Thiers, their brutalities included, and had drawn lessons for the proletariat regarding the necessity to break the state structure but in a quite un-marxian way, doesn’t mention the fact that a revolution can’t succeed in a overwhelming peasant dominated country like France where the revolution involved only one and a half cities (Paris and half of Lyons). Not surprising? Isn’t this a tell-tale story of clouded vision, heavily biased against the potential of peasantry? Probably yes and Marxism had lived with this lop-sided theoretical bias for long, to the detriment of many potential revolutions, particularly in the capitalists’ hinterland. And Marx and his theoretical accent can’t steer clear of the responsibilities for all these.

However, thanks to Marx, the fugitive, all dynamism were not lost in Marxism. From the podium of the International, it was occasionally vented that a revolution (or even a Anglo-French war with Russia) would be essential to further energize the English working class. Marx was even ready to support the Narodniks when they killed the Czar (Alexandar II), while his main adversary in the International had been Bakuninists (who were anarchists a la Narodniks). In his long association with the Russian socialists, he became a great admirer of their culture and literature, took all the pains to learn Russian, found great interest in Russian Mir (Obschina) and was also ready to consider a direct passage to socialism without passing through the vicissitudes of capitalism.

He also criticized Plekhanov et al for using his quotes in their fight against Narodism, impressing that his research was based on Western Europe and not on Russia and that his findings can’t be extrapolated anywhere and everywhere irrespective of situations.

Fall of Paris Commune and first International had some pessimistic effect on Marx regarding the revolutionary role of European working class at least for the time being. Development trade unionism (which was viewed by Marx and Engels as being subsumed by bourgeois, at least in some concrete cases) also signalled a decline in their revolutionary activism. Later on we will see how in the next two-three decades trade unionism got great fillip in Europe with no corresponding development in the workers’ revolution activity. May be sensing something similar, Marx seemed to have preferred to study Russian economy and undertake other ethnological studies than engage in completing the two volumes of Das Capital (2 & 3) early in 1870s. Pessimism was, however, evident in Engel’s correspondence (towards the fag end of his life) with Russian left (Narodnik, Danielsen), where he repeatedly spoke of the European working class (We) for going too slow (in revolution).

Much is known about Marx’s correspondence with Vera Zasulich, where he considers and discussed the prospects and problems of Russia moving to socialism piggybacking the Obschina. I would conclude this section by referring to another letter written by Marx to N. K. Mikhailovsky in 1877 but not published until 1934, where he denies possibility of any master-key for revolutions. The last paragraph of the letter goes like this:

“By studying each of these evolutions separately and then comparing them, one will easily find the key to these phenomena, but one will never succeed with the master-key of a historico-philosophical theory whose supreme virtue consists in being supra-historical.”15


Master-key syndrome had been troubling Marxists all over the world for decades and millennia. Lot many mistakes and blunders have been committed, both in practical revolutionary politics as well as in theory. We will see this further in the context of the Comintern’s role in revolutions in the East. We will take them up in our subsequent discussions in this site. For now let us conclude that, without the master key syndrome, the artificial watershed between the proletariat and the peasantry, in the name of Marxism becomes redundant and prizes open multiple possibilities and helps us inch towards a level theoretical ground, that of the proletariat foncier, where peasantry is welcomed into the fold of the proletariat, without the fear of being degraded into playing second fiddle to it.



  2. Condition of the Working Class in England – F. Engels
  3. The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848 – Eric Hobsbawm, pp. 380
  8. ‘History of the Communist League’, Capital vol. II, written in 1885
  9. Age of Empire, Chapter 5, pp.113
  10. Chapter 7, The Rise of the Working Classes: Trade Unions and Socialism, 1871-1914 - William A. Pelz
  12. ‘Instructions for the Delegates of the Provisional General Council’, 1866 - K Marx
  13. ‘Letter to Ludwig Kugelmann’, December 12 1868 - K Marx”
  14. Letter to Engels, December 11, 1869
  15. (From New International, Vol. I, No 4, November, 1934, pp.110-111)





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