Book Review: S. N. Prokopovich. The Working-Class Movement in the West

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Author(s) Lenin
Written 1899

Written at the end of 1899
First published in 1928 in Lenin Miscellany VII. Published according to the manuscript.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1964, Moscow, Volume 4, pages 183-192.

Lenin’s review of Prokopovich’s Working-Class Movement in the West. An Experiment in Critical Investigation. Vol. 1. Germany. Belgium (St. Petersburg, 1899) was written at the end of 1899. The first three pages and the end of the manuscript have been lost; apparently the manuscript was prepared for the press, for it contains some slight corrections made by Martov. The present translation has been made from Lenin’s original text without the corrections. Lenin’s review was not published at the time, in view of the fact that Prokopovich’s book was held up by the St. Petersburg Censorship Committee on May 22, 1899, and did not appear until the end of January 1900. p. 183

S. N. Prokopovich. The Working-Class Movement in the West

“ turn to social science and to its alleged conclusion that the capitalist system of society is hastening inexorably to Its doom by virtue of the contradictions developing within It. We find the relevant explanations in Kautsky’s Erfurt Programme” (147). Before dealing with the content of the passage quoted by Mr. Prokopovich, we must take note of a peculiarity highly typical of him and similar reformers of theory. Why is it that our “critical investigator,” in turning to “social science,” looks for “explanations” in Kautsky’s popular booklet and nowhere else? Does he really believe that the whole of “social science” is contained in that little booklet? He knows perfectly well that Kautsky is “a faithful custodian of the traditions of Marx” (I, 187) and that an exposition and a substantiation of the “conclusions” of a certain school of “social science” are to be found precisely in Marx’s treatises on political economy; yet he acts as though such a thing were altogether unknown to him. What are we to think of an “investigator” who confines himself to attacks on “custodians” of a theory but who does not once, throughout his book, risk crossing swords openly and directly with the theory itself?

In the passage quoted by Mr. Prokopovich, Kautsky says that the technological revolution and the accumulation of capital are progressing with increasing rapidity, that the expansion of production is made necessary by the fundamental properties of capitalism and must be uninterrupted, while the expansion of the market “has for some time been proceeding too slowly” and that “the time is apparently at hand when the market for European industry will not only cease its further expansion but will even begin to shrink. This event can only mean the bankruptcy of the entire capitalist society.” Mr. Prokopovich “criticises” the “conclusions” drawn by “social science” (i.e., Kautsky’s citation of one of the laws of development evolved by Marx): “The basis thus given for the inevitability of the collapse of capitalist society allots the chief role to the contradiction between ’the constant drive to expand production and the ever slower expansion of the market and, finally, its shrinkage.’ It is this contradiction, according to Kautsky, that must bring about the collapse of the capitalist system of society. But [listen well!] the expansion of production presumes the ’productive consumption’ of part of the surplus—value—i.e., first its realisation and then its expenditure on machinery, buildings, etc., for new production. In other words, the expansion of production is most closely connected with the existence of a market for the commodities already produced; the constant expansion of production with a market that is relatively shrinking is, therefore, an impossibility” (148). And Mr. Prokopovich is so well satisfied with his excursion into the sphere of “social science” that in the very next line he speaks with condescending disdain of a “scientific” (in inverted commas) substantiation of faith, etc. Such jockeying with criticism would be outrageous, were it not for the fact that it is, more than anything else, amusing. Our good Mr. Prokopovich has heard a knell, but knows not from what bell. Mr. Prokopovich has heard of the abstract theory of realisation that has recently been heatedly discussed in Russian literature in the course of which the role of “productive consumption” has been particularly stressed on account of errors in Narodnik economics. Mr. Prokopovich has not properly understood this theory and imagines that it denies (!) the existence in capitalism of those basic and elementary contradictions Kautsky speaks of. To listen to Mr. Prokopovich. we would have to believe that “productive consumption” could develop quite independently of individual consumption (in which consumption by the masses plays the dominant role), i.e., that capitalism does not contain within itself any contradiction between production and consumption. This is simply absurd, and Marx and his Russian supporters[1] have clearly opposed such misconstructions. Not only does the bourgeois-apologetic theory into which our “critical investigator” has wandered not follow from the fact that “the expansion of production presumes productive consumption,” but, on the contrary, from it follows the contradiction between the tendency towards the unlimited growth of production and limited consumption that is inherent precisely in capitalism and that must bring about its collapse.

Apropos of what has been said, it is worth while mentioning the following interesting point. Mr. Prokopovich is a fervent follower of Bernstein, whose magazine articles he quotes and translates for several pages. In his well-known book, Die Voraussetzungen, etc.,[2] Bernstein even recommends Mr. Prokopovich to the German public as his Russian supporter, but he makes a reservation, the substance of which is that Mr. Prokopovich is more Bernsteinian than Bern stein. And, a remarkable thing, Bernstein and his Russian yesman both distort the theory of realisation, but in diametrically opposite directions, so that they cancel each other out. Firstly, Bernstein regarded as a “contradiction” the fact that Marx turned against Rodbertus’ theory of crises and at the same time declared that “the ultimate cause of all real crises is the poverty and limited consumption of the masses.” Actually there is no contradiction here at all, as I have had occasion to point out in other places (Studies, p. 30,[3] The Development of Capitalism in Russia, p. 19[4] ). Secondly, Bernstein argues in precisely the same manner as does Mr. V. V. here in Russia, that the tremendous growth of the surplus-product must inevitably mean an increase in the number of well-to-do (or the greater prosperity of the workers), since the capitalists themselves and their servants (sic I) cannot “consume” the entire surplus-product (Die Voraussetzungen, etc., S. 51-52). This naïve argument completely ignores the role of productive consumption, as Kautsky pointed out in his book against Bernstein (Kautsky, Gegen Bernstein, II. Abschnitt,[5] –the paragraph on “the employment of surplus-value”). And now there appears a Russian Bernsteinian, recommended by Bernstein, who says exactly the opposite, who lectures Kautsky on the role of “productive consumption” and then reduces Marx’s discovery to the absurdity that productive consumption can develop quite independently of individual consumption (I), that the realisation of surplus-value by its use for the production of means of production does away with the dependence, in the final analysis, of production on consumption and, consequently, with the contradiction between them! By this example the reader may judge whether Mr. Prokopovich’s “loss of a good half of the theoretical premises” is due to the “investigations” or whether our “critical investigator” is “at a loss” due to some other cause.

A second example. Taking up three pages (25-27), our author “investigated” the question of peasant associations in Germany. He gave a list of the various kinds of associations and statistical data on their rapid growth (especially of dairy associations) and argued: “The artisan has been almost deprived of his roots in the modern economic system, whereas the peasant continues to stand firm [!] in it.” How very simple, isn’t it really? The undernourishment of the German peasants, their exhaustion from excessive labour, the mass flight of people from the countryside to the towns— all that must be mere invention. It suffices to point to the rapid growth of associations (especially dairy associations that result in depriving the peasants’ children of milk and lead to the peasants’ greater dependence on capitalists) in order to prove the “stability” of the peasantry. “The development of capitalist relations in the manufacturing industry ruins the artisan but improves the condition of the peasant. It [the condition? I hinders the penetration of capitalism into agriculture.” This is new! Until now it has been believed that it is the development of capitalism in the manufacturing industry that is the main force which gives rise to, and develops, capitalism in agriculture. But Mr. Prokopovich, like his German prototypes, could truly say of him self: nous avons changé tout ca—we have changed all that! But would that be true, gentlemen? Have you really changed anything at all, have you shown the error in even one of the basic postulates of the theory you have “torn to pieces” and replaced it by a truer postulate? Have you not, on the contrary, returned to the old prejudices?... “On the other hand, the development of the manufacturing industry ensures subsidiary earnings for the peasant.”... A return to the doctrine of Messrs. V. V. & Co. on the subsidiary earnings of the peasantry! Mr. Prokopovich does not deem it worth mentioning the fact that in a large number of cases these “earnings” express the conversion of the peasant into a wage-labourer. He prefers to conclude his “investigation” with the high-sounding sentence: “The sap of life has not yet left the peasant class.” It is true that Kautsky has shown, precisely in respect of Germany, that agricultural associations are a transition stage on the way to capitalism—but, you see, we already know how the terrible Mr. Prokopovich has crushed Kautsky!

We see this resurrection of Narodnik views (Narodnik views of the V. V. hue) not only in the above passage but in many other places in Mr. Prokopovich’s “critical investigation.” The reader probably knows the fame (a sorry fame) that Mr. V. V. earned for himself by his excessive narrowing and debasing of the theory known as “economic” materialism: this theory, as “adapted” by Mr. V. V., did not postulate that in the final analysis all factors are reduced to the development of the productive forces, but postulated that many extremely important (although in the final analysis secondary) factors could be neglected. Mr. Prokopovich offers us a very similar distortion when he attempts to expose Kautsky as one who does not understand the significance of “material forces” (144), in the course of which Mr. Prokopovich himself light-mindedly confuses “economic organisation” (145) with “economic force” (on 146 and especially 149). Unfortunately we cannot dwell to the needed extent on an analysis of this error of Mr. Prokopovich, but must refer the reader to the above-mentioned book by Kautsky against Bernstein (Abschnitt III, Section a), where the original versions of Mr. Prokopovich’s rehashings are discussed at length. We also hope that the reader who peruses Mr. Prokopovich’s book attentively will see quite easily that the theory torn to pieces by our “critical investigator” (Mr. Prokopovich, incidentally, here, too, maintains a modest silence about the views of the founders of the theory and refrains from examining them, preferring to confine himself to extracts from the speeches and articles of present-day adherents of this theory)—that the theory is in no way to blame for this disgraceful narrowing of “economic” materialism (cf., for example, statements by authoritative Belgian spokesmen on pp. 74, 90, 92, 100 in the second part).

As far as the extracts quoted by Mr. Prokopovich are concerned, it should be said that he often seizes on individual passages and gives the reader a distorted impression of views and arguments that have not been expounded in Russian literature. On account of this, Mr. Prokopovich’s jockeying with criticism creates a most repulsive impression. In some cases it would be worth the while of those who read Mr. Prokopovich’s book to refer even to a book by Professor Herkner that has recently been translated into Russian: Wage-Labour in Western Europe (St. Petersburg, 1899, published by the magazine Obrazovaniye). For instance, in a note to page 24 (Part I) Mr. Prokopovich writes that the Congress of 1892 “adopted a resolution sympathising with the organisation of producers’ associations” and follows this up with a quotation which, first, does not fully support the words of the author and, secondly, breaks o/J precisely at the point where It speaks of the necessity “to conduct a particular struggle against the belief that associations are in a position to bring any influence to bear on capitalist production relations, etc.” (Herkner, Notes, pp. xi-xii, Note 6 to Chapter IX).

Mr. Prokopovich is just as successful in his crushing of Kautsky on pages 56, 150, 156, 198, and in many other places as he is in the case we have examined. Mr. Prokopovich’s assertions that Liebknecht, in the sixties, for a time renounced his ideals, betrayed them, etc. (111, 112), are in no sense to be taken seriously. We have had occasion to see how well-founded his judgements are, and the following sentence (once again directed, not against the founder of the theory, but against its “custodian”) will, for example, show us to what Pillars of Hercules the insolence and self-assurance of our “investigator” will take him: “We should be acting superficially, if we undertook to criticise this whole conception of the working-class movement from the stand point of its conformity to the true course taken by the development of this movement—from the standpoint of its scientific basis [Mr. Prokopovich’s italics]. There is not and can not be (sic!) a grain of science in it” (156). This is what you call categorical criticism! All this Marxism, it isn’t even worth criticising, and that’s that! Obviously we have be fore us either a man who is destined to make a great revolution in the science “of which there cannot be even a grain in the theory that is dominant in Germany, or ... or—how can it be put delicately?—or a man who, when “at a loss,” repeats the phrases of others. Mr. Prokopovich prostrates him self with such fervour before this very latest of gods who has pronounced those words for the thousandth time that he has no pity on his own forehead. Bernstein, if you please, “has some shortcomings in his theoretical views” (198) that consist—can you imagine it?—in his belief in the necessity of a scientific theory that defines the aims of the men of action concerned. “Critical investigators” are not subject to this strange belief. “Science will become free,” utters Mr. Prokopovich, “only when it is admitted that it must serve the aims of a party and not define them. It must be recognised that science cannot define the aims of a practical party” (197). Be it noted that Bernstein renounced precisely these views of his follower. “A principled programme inevitably leads to dogmatism and is only a hindrance in the way of the party’s sound development.... Theoretical principles are all very well In propaganda but not in a programme” (157). “Programmes are unnecessary; they are harmful.” “The individual himself may be a programme if he is sensitive to, and has a fine feeling for, the needs of the times.”... The reader probably thinks that I am continuing to quote Mr. Prokopovich. But no, I am now quoting the newspaper Novoye Vremya,[6] which recently published articles on a programme that attracted a great deal of attention—not the programme of a party, of course, but of the new Minister for Internal Affairs....

The relationship of the freedom of unprincipledness—excuse me, “freedom of science”—preached by Mr. Prokopovich to the views of the majority of the West-European personalities of whom our valiant critic so valiantly writes, may be seen from the following quotations drawn from that same book by Mr. Prokopovich: “Of course, without a betrayal of principles...” (159). “Not in any way violating one’s independence, loyalty to principle....” “I renounce compromise only in the case ... in which it leads to a renunciation of principles or even to the ignoring of principles...” (171). “Introducing no unprincipledness...” (174). “Not, of course, selling one’s soul, in the present case, one’s principles...” (176). “The principles are now firmly established...” (183). “A compass [is needed] that would rid us of the need to grope our way,” against “short-sighted empiricism,” against “a thoughtless attitude to principles” (195). “Primary importance attaches to principles, to the theoretical part...” (103, Part II), etc.

In conclusion, two more quotations: “If German Social-Democracy were the expression of socialism and not of the proletariat that is acting in defence of its own interests in present-day society, for the first time recognising its significance, then—since not all Germans are idealists—side by side with this party that pursues idealist aims we should see another, stronger party, a working-class party that represents the practical interests of that part of the German proletariat that is not idealist.”... “If socialism were not to play the role of a mere symbol in that movement, a symbol distinguishing one definite organisation, if it were the motive idea, the principle that demands of party members a certain specific service—in that case the socialist party would separate from the general labour party, and the mass of the proletariat, which strives for better living conditions under the existing system and cares little for the ideal future, would form an independent labour party.” The reader will again probably think....

  1. Cf. my article in Nauchnoye Obozreniye for August 1899, especially page 1572 (see pp. 74-93 of this volume, especially p. 84.—Ed.), and The Development of Capitalism in Russia, p. 16, et seq. (See present edition, Vol. 3, p. 54, et seq.—Ed.) —Lenin
  2. The Premises, etc.—Ed.
  3. See present edition, Vol. 2, A Characterisation of Economic Romanticism, pp. 167-68.—Ed.
  4. See present edition, Vol. 3, p. 58.—Ed.
  5. Kautsky, Against Bernstein, Section II.—Ed.
  6. Novoye Vremya (New Times)—a newspaper published in St. Petersburg from 1868 to October 1917; at first it was moderately liberal, but from 1876 onwards it became an organ of the reactionary circles among the aristocracy and bureaucracy. The newspaper opposed not only the revolutionary, but the bourgeois-liberal movement. From 1905 onwards it was an organ of the Black Hundreds.