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Book Review: The Russian Bourgeoisie: Cronies or Capitalists?

Cronies or Capitalists? The Russian Bourgeoisie and the Bourgeois Revolution from 1850 to 1917. By David Lockwood. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009. £39.99 / $59.99

This study by David Lockwood, who teaches at Flinders University in Australia, is important in two ways. It contributes both to the history of Russia in the decades leading up to the establishment of the Bolshevik regime and to the theory of historical materialism. 

As history, the book traces the evolution of the political attitudes and activities of the big capitalists of late Tsarist Russia, with special emphasis on the Russo-Japanese war and insurrection of 1905, World War One and the upheavals of 1917. The author debunks the Bolshevik view of the capitalists as dependent on Tsarism and therefore unable to fight for a bourgeois revolution (thereby justifying Bolshevik leadership). On the contrary, they consistently opposed the archaic Tsarist state as a fetter on the development of the productive forces.
However, according to Lockwood, it was not the capitalists who eventually played the decisive role in overthrowing Tsarism and modernising Russia. This role was assumed, especially after the outbreak of war in 1914, by a new social force known as “the Third Element” – technical specialists of various kinds in voluntary coordinating bodies like the War Industry Committees, in city and provincial government and in the army. These aspiring technocrats were the backbone of a new “developmental state” that displaced the old state in February 1917 and took final form under the Bolsheviks.

This brings us round to the author’s general contribution to Marxian theory. He emphasises that the tasks of the bourgeois revolution need not be – and, in fact, usually are not – carried out by the bourgeoisie itself. In Russia, in Japan after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, and in other late industrialising countries, these tasks have generally been carried out by a modernising state. The role of the state is immensely strengthened under conditions of intense military competition and, above all, during wars.

Lockwood argues in this connection that the state belongs not to the superstructure of society (alongside law, ideology, etc.) but to its basis. That is, the state is a specific type of production relation that interacts with other production relations (in modern times, with capital). I agree that it is less misleading to assign the state to the basis than to the superstructure, but perhaps it is best to treat it as a third category, distinct from both basis and superstructure.

While in most respects the author’s exposition is admirably clear, he might have made a greater effort to avoid confusion over terms. The problem is that central concepts -- capital, capitalism, capitalist, bourgeois, bourgeoisie – can be understood either in a narrow sense, to refer only to private ownership of the means of production, or in a broad sense that also encompasses state ownership. In the World Socialist Movement we use these words in the broad sense. Lockwood uses them in the narrow sense until the final chapter, when without warning he switches to the broad sense, even calling the system established by the Bolsheviks “state capitalism” (inside quotation marks that suggest reservations).

Nevertheless, on the whole we can recommend this book. Unfortunately, like most academic works, it is quite expensive and there is no paperback edition. Get your public library to order it.

The Socialist Standard, no. 1266, February 2010

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