Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2536

Was Russia too backward for a socialist revolution?

This article is over 7 years, 4 months old
The Russian working class was a minority in a backward society, but it wielded power disproportionate to its small size
Issue 2536
Factory production exploded in Russia’s cities
Factory production exploded in Russia’s cities
Every week in 2017 Socialist Worker will be running an article about an aspect of the Russian Revolution

Every week in 2017 Socialist Worker is running an article about an aspect of the Russian Revolution. Click here for the introductory article, and for the full list go to

The Socialist Workers Party will also be holding events throughout the year including a major conference on 4 November.

The dates of the Russian Revolution can be confusing. Russia used the Julian or Old Style calendar until 24 January 1918, when this was replaced by the Gregorian or New Style calendar. To convert Old Style dates to New Style dates, add 13 days. So 26 October 1917 Old Style becomes 8 November New Style. Importantly, the labour movement in Russia celebrated International Women’s Day and May Day on the same New Style date as workers elsewhere.

Before the Russian Revolution in 1917, most socialists argued that a socialist revolution could only take place in the developed Western countries.

They said backward Russia first needed a “bourgeois revolution” so capitalism could develop.

But by the late 19th century capitalism was in the process of becoming a global system. Nowhere was off limits for capitalist expansion—and Russia was no exception.

The Tsarist dictatorship was too powerful for capitalism to be forced on it directly. But capital flooded in nevertheless, finding its way to Russian cities through foreign investment.

Massive factories were built in the midst of a largely feudal society.

People flocked to the cities to find work. At the start of the 19th century, Russia’s urban population was just over 1,600,000 or 4.4 percent of the total population.

By 1897 it had grown to almost 16,300,000 or 13 percent of the total population.

While capitalism was bursting onto the scene in cities, the rest of the country remained largely undeveloped. But it was not untouched by the process.

One 1897 estimate puts the working class at 22 million out of a population of

125 million. Despite the industrial boom it was still a minority, but a significant one.

Production was increasingly centred around the cities and the countryside followed their lead.

Factories with over 1,000 workers grew far more rapidly in number, productive capacity and workforce than smaller ones.

Russia’s productive capacity was in advance of many other advanced capitalist states. For instance, the average size and output of Russian factories overtook those in the US.

Because of this, the Russian working class grew at a far faster pace than in capitalist economies that had developed earlier.

One of the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky’s great insights was to see the revolutionary potential of this class.

Because of the rapid centralisation of the economy, workers had immense power. A minority of the population could bring the economy grinding to a halt.


And the Russian capitalist class—caught between its reliance on both the Tsarist state and foreign capital—was too weak to carry through its own revolution.

Trotsky wrote in 1905, “The factory industrial system not only brings the working class to the forefront, it also cuts the ground from under the feet of bourgeois democracy.”

Alongside its rapid creation, the Russian working class did not have to go through the process of learning about basic left ideas. It could jump to advanced socialist ones.

But because the working class was small, it needed the peasantry—the majority—to help carry a revolution through.

Trotsky later applied this theory of “uneven and combined” development to the system as a whole.

The uneven development between the cities and the countryside in Russia was mirrored on a world scale. There was a similar contradiction between the system’s central states—France, Germany and Britain—and peripheral economies.

Because of the uneven way capitalism developed, the comparatively small working class in these countries wielded power disproportionate to their size.

But these peripheral countries also combined with advanced states to form the world capitalist system as a whole. The working class in advanced states had to join with those in the peripheral ones to carry through the revolutionary process on an international scale.

The revolution could not hold out in isolation, a point that was tragically proven in Russia. That’s why internationalism is not simply a nice idea—it is a necessity.

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance