I’ve tried to figure out a way to avoid this, but I just can’t. So much of the argument in the book is based on the opening paragraph of chapter one, and it contains such a vital concept, that I’m going to have to devote a post to it. Here is how the book starts:
“Owing to the insignificance of the Russian bourgeoisie, the democratic tasks of backward Russia—such as liquidation of the monarchy and the semifeudal slavery of the peasants—could be achieved only through a dictatorship of the proletariat. The proletariat, however, having seized the power at the head of the peasant masses, could not stop at the achievement of these democratic tasks. The bourgeois revolution was directly bound up with the first stages of a socialist revolution.”
The term “historical tasks” occurs a great deal in Marxist literature, and I’m afraid that, without some explanation, it will seem as if history is being seen as having agency, in exactly the way that certain casual references in discussions of evolution are sometimes seen by theists as implying that evolution has agency.
Society, driven by the production and distribution of necessities, has discovered various forms for managing that production and distribution. These forms—primitive communism (aka hunter-gatherer), slave-holding, feudal-monarchical, capitalist—are the product of several factors, including the climate and makeup of the land, the resources to be found on it, the history of the development of that culture, and, first and foremost, the development of the productive forces and its corollary, the productivity of labor.
Form and content, of course, are deeply interrelated. Permit me to give an example. I’ll pick agriculture as the simplest and most classic case. An improvement in agricultural technique—better seeds, for example, or a new plow design, or a new breed of draft animal—produces a greater surplus, which in a feudal society is appropriated by the landlord. This increase permits, in turn, greater holdings for that landlord, which require a larger State (more gendarmes to keep the peasants in check, a standing army to fight off neighbors who want to appropriate the surplus for themselves) which, over time, leads to the growth of administrative cities that are centers of consumption (e.g., London). The surplus is also used to purchase luxury items, which gives inspiration to crafts, leading to guilds and eventually to the growth of cities that are centers of production (e.g., Manchester). As the guilds and craftsmen improve their own technique, and thus the productivity of their labor, they move us in the direction of more modern (i.e., capitalist) forms of production and exchange, which then find themselves held back by the very feudal forms in which they were developed. A society whose content is based on commodity exchange cannot function well if the form is based on feudal law and land-ownership arrangements. The inefficiency of trade in a society where each count or baron determines his own laws, taxes, and tariffs is ruinous to capitalism. The desire of a king to pull in as much wealth as possible and to preserve his power against the lesser nobles is antithetical to the need of capital for reinvestment to increase production. And, above all, peasants who are tied to the land by the force of law (serfdom) or economic necessity are unavailable for free labor needed in the workshops and, later, the factories.
Thus, at a certain point, the content overcomes the form; the capitalist class overthrows the feudal regime and re-creates society in its own image. The level of violence in this process is primarily the result of the relative strength of the contending classes. The English Civil War (1642-1651) and the Great French Revolution (1789 – 1799) are the classic types of capitalist revolution. This comes about when a system has, in Marxist terms, exhausted itself-–in other words, reached the point where the old form is confining the new content and preventing its full development, and, indeed, threatening the strangulation of society.
But here’s the rule: A system never leaves the stage of history before it has reached that point of exhaustion. When Marxists speak of historic tasks, the term means first of all that the productive forces have been built up as much as they can without overthrowing the old arrangements. And, second, the society in question has completed the developments that go along with that, such as, in the case of capitalism, representative democracy, settling the “land question,” a more equitable justice system, and so on.
That’s the rule. Alas, history doesn’t have as a priority making things simple and straightforward. Cultures and countries don’t exist in isolation from each other, and they don’t all develop at the same tempo.
The law of combined development as regards industry states that, since technology doesn’t have to be developed independently every time, advances in technique in backward companies will in some places surpass advanced companies exactly because of their backwardness. Within an industry, there are many times when a company using older techniques of manufacture has surpassed a company using more modern techniques just because it was in a position, with greater credit and more available capital, to immediately take advantage of the newest discoveries that another cannot because it’s capital is still tied up in the last generation of technology. This is especially true when there is a major breakthrough in the technique of manufacturing. I remember working at a computer company (DNA/Avnet) in the late 70’s that was going through exactly that process with automated wire-wrap technology; it was on the wrong side, and eventually folded (there were other reasons, but that was a contributor). Between countries this phenomenon is also not uncommon. My favorite example is the way Hungary at a certain point in the 1980s became a leader in cell phone technology exactly because, when cell phones were introduced, Hungary was still using the old, WW II-era land line system. Instead of upgrading to an already obsolete technology, it leapfrogged and established a cell phone system that was, for a time, the most advanced in Europe. Another example, just because I love examples that use Hungary, is that Hungarian orthography is the most logical, scientific, and rational in the world, because Hungarian literacy was so low for so long that they came late to the game and were thus able to see and avoid the ambiguities and inconsistencies that plague the orthographies of the more advanced languages.
But the same law also applies to the comparative overall technological level of countries. Russia, which hadn’t yet abolished serfdom in the middle of the 19th Century (compared to the 14th in France, the 15th in most of Germany, and the 16th in England) was significantly “behind the times” for the creation of modern industry. For that reason, when it started, it caught up quickly in certain ways (though not in others, as we will see). In his History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky shows that the typical size of factories, for example, was considerably larger in Russia than in the advanced capitalist countries for exactly this reason—it didn’t need to start small and build, the techniques for large industry were already known, and their greater efficiency (and thus, profitability) were well established by the “American system of manufacture.”
Under these conditions, certain things that one would expect of a bourgeois nation—the settling of the land question, the creation of democratic forms, the establishment of certain sorts of equality before the law, the building of the modern nation-state—had not been addressed. Capitalism performs these “tasks” for its own self interest: Democracy and formal legal equality is better for the ruling class because it drastically reduces the cost in gendarmarie, secret police, prisons, and other expensive institutions of repression. The land question and the modern nation-state both serve to make trade more efficient, and to provide a pool of free labor for manufacturing.
By the early 20th Century, capitalism had so exhausted itself that it could only continue by massive destruction of capital and infrastructure to raise the rate of profit, and by using military (instead of economic) means to shift markets and resources among the major powers—this is exactly the significance of World War I. But the exhaustion of capitalism in the major powers of Western Europe and the United States came at a time when Russia was still a feudal monarchy. Above, I gave the rule as, “A system never leaves the stage of history before it has exhausted itself.” But here’s the rub: capitalism is international. What happens when, on a world scale, it has exhausted itself before certain countries (Russia, India, China, a host of African and South American countries) have even started on the road? The answer, in every one of those countries, is that the bourgeoisie is unable to carry out the tasks of capitalism. This leaves those countries two choices: to fall victim to the colonial pretensions of one of the major imperialist powers and become in essence an enslaved nation, or turn the historical tasks of capitalism over to those who can carry it out: the proletariat.
From February to October of 1917, the Russian bourgeoisie held state power. During this time they not only failed to give land to the peasant, but instituted measures of repression against peasants who demanded it. They not only failed to end the war, but launched a doomed offensive that even their own generals knew was pure adventurism. They not only failed to provide bread, but pulled in a counter-revolutionary general to crush the working class for daring to ask. In other words, in 9 months, they proved conclusively—if not to the willfully blind bourgeois historian, at least to the worker, to the soldier, and to the peasant—that they were unable to carry out the tasks of capitalism. In October, the proletariat seized power with those tasks still not accomplished. And, holding power, rather than let itself be crushed by efforts to restore the monarchy, or permit Russia to become a colonial puppet of the imperialist powers, the working class chose, under the leadership of the Bolshevik party, to complete the tasks of capitalism in the only way it could: by moving forward in the direction of socialism. This determined everything that followed