Article — From the February 1955 issue

Marx Was a City Boy

Or, why communism may fail

( 3 of 11 )

Two Practical Politicians

Now comes a monumental irony of modern history. Without the peasant’s unsatisfied desire to own his land, there would not have been a Russian revolution in 1917 and, almost certainly, the Bolsheviks would not have triumphed in the Communist phase of that revolution in November 1917. Not Marxism or Socialism or Communism, but the peasant’s great longing for land was the most powerful single engine of the Russian upheaval of 1917.

In 1917 Lenin perceived this fact. He was thoroughly prepared to junk or alter Marxist theory in the interests of the immediate struggle for power. As a practical politician, he managed to harness a good deal of the discontent which had infected the peasant-born Russian armies; and he used this non-Marxist—almost anti-Marxist—motive to seize power.

Lenin’s 1917 slogans were: Land, Bread, and Peace. Despite seventy years of Marxism, in the showdown Lenin rated the peasant’s desire for land the most effective political force to which he could appeal.

In China the peasant was even more important to Communist victory than he was in Russia. At first, the Chinese Communists sought to achieve power by mobilizing strength in the cities. They organized the industrial workers and infiltrated union organizations in the approved manner. It took a whole series of defeats, starting in 1927, to disabuse them of this strategy.

The emergence of Mao-tse Tung between 1927 and 1935 developed directly from his two perceptions: (1) that the desire of the poor peasant for a bit of land which he could call his own was a powerful political force; and (2) that if he associated the Communist movement with that force, he had a chance to build an effective military establishment in the countryside, with which he might ultimately seize power. This strategy was regarded for some time in Moscow as unorthodox.

From a Western point of view, however, there is nothing inconsistent with Communism about it. Lenin in his own way was equally flexible in his Marxism. The underlying truth is, of course, that long before 1917 and long before 1949, when Communism was victorious in China, Communism had ceased to be a philosophy of history and an ideological movement in the Western sense. It had become primarily a tactical conspiracy, by a self-appointed elite, for the pursuit and maintenance of power. As such, it was prepared to make its slogans fit its power requirements. Lenin, Stalin, and Mao all did this when occasion demanded.

We are confronted, then, with a first-class irony of modern history. Marxist theory had—and has—no sympathy or interest in the desires of the farmer. Nevertheless, Communist tacticians in both Russia and China achieved power in large part by harnessing to their purposes the peasant’s aspiration for his own land.

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