On Social Relations In Russia by Engels
Source: MECW, Volume 27, p. 421;
Written: during first half of January 1894;
First published: in F. Engels, Internationales aus dem “Volksstaat” (1871-75), Berlin, 1894;
Scanned and Formatted: Andy Blunden.
First I must report that Mr. P. Tkachov was strictly speaking not a Bakuninist, i.e. an anarchist, but made himself out to be a “Blanquist”. The error was an understandable one, since the said gentleman, in accordance with the Russian refugee custom of the time, expressed his solidarity with all Russian émigrés against the West, and indeed defended Bakunin and comrades against my attacks in his pamphlet as if they had been directed at himself. The views on the Russian communistic peasant commune which he championed vis-à-vis myself were essentially those of Herzen. This Pan-Slavist literary man, who was puffed up into a revolutionary, had discovered from Haxthaugen’s Studien über Russland that the serfs on his estates know of no private property, but redistribute the fields and meadows amongst themselves from time to time. As a literary man, he did not need to learn what soon after became common knowledge, that the common ownership of land is a form of ownership which was, in fact, common to all peoples at a certain stage of development. It prevailed among the Germans, Celts, Indians — in short, all the Indo-European peoples in primeval times; it still exists in India, was only recently suppressed by force in Ireland and Scotland, and, though it is dying out, still occurs here and there in Germany today. But as a Pan-Slavist who was at most a socialist in his rhetoric, he found in this a fresh pretext to depict his “holy” Russia and its mission to rejuvenate and regenerate the rotten and decrepit West — if necessary by force of arms — in an even more brilliant light in contrast to the same indolent West. What the worn-out French and English are unable to achieve for all their pains, the Russians have at home, ready-made.
“Maintaining the peasant commune and establishing the freedom of the individual, extending the self-management of the village to the towns and the entire state while preserving national unity — this sums up the entire question of the future of Russia, i.e. the question of the same social antinomy whose solution occupies and moves the minds of the West” (Herzen, Letters to Linton).
So there may be a political question for Russia; but the “social question” is already solved as far as Russia is concerned.
Herzen’s successor Tkachov made it just as easy for himself as his master. Although he could no longer maintain in 1875 that the “social question” in Russia had already been solved, according to him the Russian peasants — as born communists — are infinitely closer to socialism than the poor, god-forsaken West European proletarians, and are infinitely better off into the bargain. When, on the strength of a hundred-year-old revolutionary tradition, French republicans consider their people to be the chosen people from a political point of view, many Russian socialists of the day declared that Russia was socially the chosen nation; the rebirth of the old economic world would, they thought, spring not from the struggles of the West European proletariat but from the innermost interior of the Russian peasant. My attack was directed at this childish view.
But now the Russian commune had also found respect and recognition among people of infinitely greater stature than the Herzens and Tkachovs. They included Nikolai Chernyshevsky, that great thinker to whom Russia owes such a boundless debt and whose slow murder through years of exile among Siberian Yakuts will remain an eternal disgrace on the memory of Alexander II the “Liberator”.
Owing to the Russian intellectual embargo Chernyshevsky never knew the works of Marx, and when Capital appeared he had long been captive in Sredne-Vilyuisk among the Yakuts. His entire intellectual development had to take place within the surrounding medium created by this intellectual embargo. What Russian censorship would not let in scarcely existed for Russia, if at all. If there are sporadic weaknesses, sporadic instances of a limited outlook, then one can only feel admiration that there are not more of them.
Chernyshevsky, too, sees in the Russian peasant commune a means of progressing from the existing form of society to a new stage of development, higher than both the Russian commune on the one hand, and West European capitalist society with its class antagonisms on the other. And he sees a mark of superiority in the fact that Russia possesses this means, whereas the West does not.
“The introduction of a better order of things is greatly hindered in Western Europe by the boundless extension of the rights of the individual ... it is not easy to renounce even a negligible portion of what one is used to enjoying, and in the West the individual is used to unlimited private rights. The usefulness and necessity of mutual concessions can he learned only by bitter experience and prolonged thought. In the West, a better system of economic relations is bound up with sacrifices, and that is why it is difficult to establish. It runs counter to the habits of the English and French peasants.” But “what seems a utopia in one country exists as a fact in another ... habits which the Englishman and the Frenchman find immensely difficult to introduce into their national life exist in fact in the national life of the Russians.... The order of things for which the West is now striving by such a difficult and long road still exists in our country in the mighty national customs of our village life ... We see what deplorable consequences resulted in the West from the loss of communal land tenure and how difficult it is to give back to the Western peoples what they have lost. The example of the West must not be lost on us” (Chernyshevsky, Works, Geneva edition, Vol. V, pp. 16-19, quoted by Plekhanov, “Nasi raznoglasija”, Geneva, 1885, [16-17])
And of the Ural Cossacks, who still retained communal tilling of the soil and subsequent distribution of the produce among individual families, he says:
“If the people of the Urals live under their present system to see machines introduced into corn-growing, they will be very glad of having retained a system which allows the use of machines that require big-scale farming embracing hundreds of dessiatines” (ibid., p. 131).
It should not be forgotten, however, that the people of the Urals with their communal tilling — saved from extinction by military considerations (we also have barrack-room communism) — stand alone in Russia, more or less like the farmstead communities on the Mosel back home with their periodic redistributions. And if they adhere to their present system until they are ready for the introduction of machinery, it will not be they who profit from it, but the Russian military exchequer whose slaves they are.
At any rate, it was a fact: at the same time as capitalist society was disintegrating and threatening to founder on the necessary contradictions of its own development, half of the entire cultivated land in Russia was still the common property of the peasant communes. Now, if in the West the resolution of the contradictions by a reorganisation of society is conditional on the conversion of all the means of production, hence of the land too, into the common property of society, how does the already, or rather still, existing common property in Russia relate to this common property in the West, which still has to be created? Can it not serve as a point of departure for a national campaign which, skipping the entire capitalist period, will convert Russian peasant communism straight into modern socialist common ownership of the means of production by enriching it with all the technical achievements of the capitalist era? Or, to use the words with which Marx sums up the views of Chernyshevsky in a letter to be quoted below: “Should Russia first destroy the rural commune, as demanded by the liberals, in order to go over to the capitalist system, or can it on the contrary acquire all the fruits of this system, without suffering its torments, by developing its own historical conditions?”
The very way in which the question is posed indicates the direction in which the answer should be sought. The Russian commune has existed for hundreds of years without ever providing the impetus for the development of a higher form of common ownership out of itself; no more so than in the case of the German Mark system, the Celtic clans, the Indian and other communes with primitive, communistic institutions. In the course of time, under the influence of commodity production surrounding them, or arising in their own midst and gradually pervading them, and of the exchange between individual families and individual persons, they all lost more and more of their communistic character and dissolved into communities of mutually independent landowners. So if the question of whether the Russian commune will enjoy a different and better fate may be raised at all, then this is not through any fault of its own, but solely due to the fact that it has survived in a European country in a relatively vigorous form into an age when not only commodity production as such, but even its highest and ultimate form, capitalist production, has come into conflict in Western Europe with the productive forces it has created itself; when it is proving incapable of continuing to direct these forces; and when it is foundering on these innate contradictions and the class conflicts that go along with them. It is quite evident from this alone that the initiative for any possible transformation of the Russian commune along these lines cannot come from the commune itself, but only from the industrial proletarians of the West. The victory of the West European proletariat over the bourgeoisie, and, linked to this, the replacement of capitalist production by socially managed production — that is the necessary precondition for raising the Russian commune to the same level.
The fact is: at no time or place has the agrarian communism that arose out of gentile society developed anything of its own accord but its own disintegration. As early as 1861 the Russian peasant commune itself was a relatively weakened form of this communism; the common tilling of the land which survived in some parts of India and in the South Slav household community (zádruga), the probable mother of the Russian commune, had been forced to give way to cultivation by individual families; common ownership only continued to manifest itself in the redistribution of land which took place at greatly varying intervals according to the different localities. This redistribution needs only to lapse or be abolished by decree, and the village of allotment peasants is a fait accompli.
But the mere fact that alongside the Russian peasant commune capitalist production in Western Europe is simultaneously approaching the point where it breaks down and where it points itself to a new form of production in which the means of production are employed in a planned manner as social property — this mere fact cannot endow the Russian commune with the power to develop this new form of society out of itself. How could it appropriate the colossal productive forces of capitalist society as social property and a social tool even before capitalist society itself has accomplished this revolution; how could the Russian commune show the world how to run large-scale industry for the common benefit, when it has already forgotten how to till its land for the common benefit?
Certainly, there are enough people in Russia who are quite familiar with Western capitalist society with all its irreconcilable antagonisms and conflicts and are also clear about the way out of this apparent dead-end. But firstly, the few thousand people who realise this do not live in the commune, and the fifty million or so in Great Russia who still live with common ownership of the land have not the faintest idea of all this. They are at least as alien and unsympathetic to these few thousand as the English proletarians from 1800 to 1840 with regard to the plans which Robert Owen devised for their salvation. And, of the workmen whom Owen employed in his factory in New Lanark, the majority likewise consisted of people who had been raised on the institutions and customs of a decaying communistic gentile society, the Celtic-Scottish clan; but nowhere does he so much as hint that they showed a greater appreciation of his ideas. And secondly, it is an historical impossibility that a lower stage of economic development should solve the enigmas and conflicts which did not arise, and could not arise, until a far higher stage. All forms of gentile community which arose before commodity production and individual exchange have one thing in common with the future socialist society: that certain things, means of production, are subject to the common ownership and the common use of certain groups. This one shared feature does not, however, enable the lower form of society to engender out of itself the future socialist society, this final and most intrinsic product of capitalism. Any given economic formation has its own problems to solve, problems arising out of itself; to seek to solve those of another, utterly alien formation would be absolutely absurd. And this applies to the Russian commune no less than to the South Slav zádruga, the Indian gentile economy or any other savage or barbaric form of society characterised by the common ownership of the means of production.
On the other hand, it is not only possible but certain that after the victory of the proletariat and the transfer of the means of production into common ownership among the West European peoples, the countries which have only just succumbed to capitalist production and have salvaged gentile institutions, or remnants thereof, have in these remnants of common ownership and in the corresponding popular customs a powerful means of appreciably shortening the process of development into a socialist society and of sparing themselves most of the suffering and struggles through which we in Western Europe must work our way. But the example and the active assistance of the hitherto capitalist West is an indispensable condition for this. Only when the capitalist economy has been relegated to the history books in its homeland and in the countries where it flourished, only when the backward countries see from this example “how it’s done”, how the productive forces of modern industry are placed in the service of all as social property — only then can they tackle this shortened process of development. But then success will be assured. And this is true of all countries in the pre-capitalist stage, not only Russia. It will be easiest — comparatively speaking — in Russia, however, because there a section of the indigenous population has already assimilated the intellectual results of capitalist development, thereby making it possible in revolutionary times to accomplish the social transformation more or less simultaneously with the West.
This was stated by Marx and me as long ago as January 21, 1882 in the preface to Plekhanov’s Russian translation of the Communist Manifesto. The passage reads:
“Alongside a rapidly developing capitalist swindle and bourgeois landed property which is only just in the process of formation, in Russia we find the greater part of the land in the common ownership of the peasants. Now the question is: can the Russian commune, this form of the original common ownership of land which is actually already in a state of severe disintegration, make the direct transition into a higher communist form of landed property — or must it first undergo the same process of dissolution that characterises the historical development of the West? The only possible answer to this question today is as follows: when the Russian revolution gives the signal for a workers’ revolution in the West, so that each complements the other, then Russian landed property might become the starting point for a communist development.”
It should not be forgotten, however, that the considerable disintegration of Russian common property mentioned above has since advanced significantly. The defeats of the Crimean War had exposed Russia’s need for rapid industrial development. Above all railways were needed, and these are not possible on a broad footing without large-scale domestic industry. The precondition for this was the so-called emancipation of the serfs; it marked the beginning of the capitalist era in Russia; but hence also the era of the rapid destruction of the common ownership of land. The redemption payments imposed on the peasants, together with increased taxes and the simultaneous reduction and deterioration of the land allotted to them, inevitably forced them into the hands of usurers, chiefly members of the peasant commune who had grown rich. The railways opened up for hitherto remote areas a market for their grain, but they also brought the cheap products of large-scale industry to them, thereby killing off the cottage industry of the peasants, who had previously manufactured similar goods partly for their own use and partly for sale. The traditional conditions of employment were thrown into confusion; there followed the breakdown which everywhere accompanies the transition from a subsistence economy to a “money economy” within the commune large differences in wealth appeared between the members — debt turned the poorer into the slaves of the rich. In short, the same process that had caused the Athenian gens to break down in the period before Solon, with the advent of the money economy, now began to break down the Russian commune. Solon was able to liberate the slaves of debt, it is true, by means of a revolutionary intervention in the then still fairly recent law of private property by simply annulling the debts. But he could not revitalise the old Athenian gens, any more than any power in the world will be able to restore the Russian commune once its breakdown has reached a certain point. And to cap it all the Russian Government has forbidden redistribution of land among the members of the commune more frequently than every twelve years, so that the peasant should grow increasingly unaccustomed to it and start to think of himself as the private owner of his share.
This was the tenor of Marx’s comments in a letter to Russia which he wrote back in 1877. [Letter to Otechestvenniye Zapiski] A certain Mr. Zhukovsky, the same man who as head cashier of the State Bank now lends his signature to Russian credit notes, had written something about Marx in the European Herald (Vestnik Yevropy), to which another writer had replied in the National Records (Otechestvenniye Zapiski). In order to correct this article Marx wrote a letter to the editor of the Records, which, after copies of the French original had long been circulating in Russia, appeared in Russian translation in the Herald of the People’s Will (Vestnik Narodnoi Voli) in 1886 in Geneva and later in Russia itself. Like everything that emanated from Marx, this letter attracted a good deal of attention and varying interpretations in Russian circles, and I therefore present its gist here.
First, Marx repudiates the view attributed to him in the Records that he shared the opinion of the Russian liberals, according to which nothing was more urgent for Russia than to destroy the communal property of the peasants and plunge headlong into capitalism. His short note on Herzen in the appendix to the first edition of Capital proves nothing. This note reads:
“If the influence of capitalist production, which is undermining the human race ... continues to develop on the continent of Europe as hitherto, hand in hand with competition in the size of national soldiery, national debts, taxes, elegant means of warfare, etc., the rejuvenation of Europe by the knout and the obligatory infusion of Kalmuck blood so earnestly prophesied by the half-Russian and whole-Muscovite Herzen (this literary man did not, incidentally, make his discoveries in the field of “Russian communism” in Russia but in the work of the Prussian privy councillor Haxthausen) might eventually become inevitable” (Capital, I, first edition, p. 763).
Marx then continues:
This passage “can under no circumstances provide the key to my opinion of the efforts” (the following is quoted in Russian in the original) “of Russian men to find a course of development for their native country which differs from that which Western Europe has followed and is still following” etc. — In the Afterword to the second German edition of Capital, I speak of a ‘great Russian scholar and critic’” (Chernyshevsky) “with the high esteem which he deserves. In his noteworthy articles the latter dealt with the question whether Russia should start, as its liberal economists demand, by destroying the rural commune in order to go over to a capitalist system, or whether, on the contrary, it can acquire all the fruits of this system, without suffering its torments, by developing its own historical conditions. He comes out in favour of the second solution.
“Be that as it may, as I do not like to leave anything to ‘guesswork’ I will speak straight out. In order to be able to assess Russia’s economic development from the position of an expert, I learned Russian and then spent several long years studying official publications and others with a bearing on this subject. I have arrived at this result: if Russia continues along the path it has followed since 1861, it will miss the finest chance that history has ever offered a nation, only to undergo all the fatal vicissitudes of the capitalist system.”
Marx goes on to clear up a number of other misunderstandings on the part of his critic; the only passage relating to the matter in question reads:
“Now, in what way was my critic able to apply this historical sketch to Russia?” (The account of primitive accumulation in Capital) “Only this: if Russia is tending to become a capitalist nation, on the model of the countries of Western Europe,— and in recent years it has gone to great pains to move in this direction — it will not succeed without having first transformed a large proportion of its peasants into proletarians; and after that, once it has been placed in the bosom of the capitalist system, it will be subjected to its pitiless laws, like other profane peoples. That is all.”
Thus wrote Marx in 1877. At that time there were two governments in Russia: the Tsar’s and that of the secret executive committee (ispolnitel'nyj komitet) of the terrorist conspirators. The power of this secret second government grew daily. The fall of tsardom seemed imminent; a revolution in Russia was bound to deprive the entire forces of European reaction of its mainstay, its great reserve army, and thus give the political movement of the West a mighty new impulse and, what is more, infinitely more favourable conditions in which to operate. No wonder that Marx advises the Russians to be in less of a hurry to make the leap into capitalism.
The Russian revolution did not come. Tsardom got the better of terrorism, which even managed to drive all the propertied, “law-abiding” classes back into its arms for the time being. And in the seventeen years which have elapsed since that letter was written both capitalism and the dissolution of the peasant commune have made tremendous headway in Russia. So how do matters stand today, in 1894?
When the old tsarist despotism continued unchanged after the defeats of the Crimean War and the suicide of Tsar Nicholas, only one road was open: the swiftest transition possible to capitalist industry. The army had been destroyed by the gigantic dimensions of the empire, on the long marches to the theatre of war; the distances had to be nullified by a strategic railway network. But railways mean capitalist industry and the revolutionising of primitive agriculture. For one thing, the agricultural produce of even the remotest areas is brought into direct contact with the world market; for another, an extensive railway system cannot be constructed and kept working without domestic industry to supply rails, locomotives, rolling stock, etc. But it is not possible to introduce one branch of large-scale industry without accepting the entire system; the textile industry on a relatively modern footing, which had already taken root both in the region of Moscow and Vladimir and on the Baltic coasts, received fresh impetus. The railways and factories were accompanied by the expansion of existing banks and the establishment of new ones; the emancipation of the peasants from serfdom instituted freedom of movement, in anticipation of the ensuing automatic emancipation of a large proportion of these peasants from landownership too. Thus in a short while all the foundations of the capitalist mode of production were laid in Russia. But the axe had also been taken to the root of the Russian peasant commune.
To lament this fact now is futile. Had the despotism of the tsars been replaced after the Crimean War by the direct parliamentary rule of nobles and bureaucrats, the process might have been slowed down somewhat; if the burgeoning bourgeoisie had taken the helm, it would certainly have been accelerated even more. As things were, there was no alternative. Alongside the Second Empire in France and the most brilliant rise of capitalist industry in England, it could really not be demanded of Russia that it plunge headlong into state-socialist experiments on account of the peasant commune. Something had to happen. What was possible under the circumstances did happen, as everywhere and always in countries engaged in commodity production, in most cases only semiconsciously or quite mechanically, and without knowing what was being done.
Now came the new age of revolution from above initiated by Germany, and hence the age of the rapid growth of socialism in all European countries. Russia took part in the general movement. There it took the form — as if it went without saying — of an assault aimed to bring about the fall of tsarist despotism, to attain intellectual and political freedom of action for the nation. A faith in the miraculous power of the peasant commune to bring about a social renaissance — a faith for which Chernyshevsky, as we have seen, was not entirely blameless — this faith played its part in heightening the enthusiasm and energy of the heroic Russian pioneers. We do not blame the people, scarcely more than a few hundred in number, who through their selfless devotion and heroism brought tsarist absolutism to the point where it was forced to consider the possibility and the conditions of surrender — we do not blame them for regarding their Russian compatriots as the chosen people of the social revolution. But this does not mean we need to share their illusion. The age of chosen peoples is gone for ever.
But during this struggle capitalism went from strength to strength in Russia and increasingly achieved what terrorism was unable to do: to force tsardom to surrender.
Tsardom needed money. Not merely for the luxury of its court, its bureaucracy, above all for its army and its foreign policy based on bribery, but notably also for its miserable finance system and the idiotic railway policy that went hand in hand with it. Foreign countries would not and could not any longer find the money for all the Tsar’s deficits; help had to come from home. A proportion of the railways shares had to be disposed of at home, as had a proportion of the loans. The Russian bourgeoisie’s first victory lay in the railway concessions, which guaranteed the share-holders all future profits while loading all future losses on the state. Then came the subsidies and premiums for industrial enterprises, and the protective tariffs favouring domestic industry which eventually made it virtually impossible to import many articles. With its colossal indebtedness and its credit in almost total ruins abroad, the Russian state has a direct fiscal interest in forcing the development of domestic industry. It constantly needs gold to pay off the interest on its foreign debts. But there is no gold in Russia; all that circulates there is paper. Part of it is provided by the prescribed payment of tariffs in gold, which also incidentally raises these tariffs by fifty per cent. But the greater part of it is supposed to come from the surplus in the export of Russian raw materials over the import of foreign industrial products; the bills of exchange drawn on foreign banks for this surplus are bought by the government at home for paper money and in return it receives gold. So if the government wishes to meet the payment of interest to foreign countries by some other method than new foreign loans, it must ensure that Russian industry rapidly expands to the point where it is able to meet domestic demand in full. Hence the requirement that Russia must become an industrial nation that is self-sufficient and independent of other countries; hence the frantic efforts of the government to bring the capitalist development of Russia to a peak in the space of a few years. For if this does not take place, there will be no options but to draw on the metallic war funds accumulated in the State Bank and the State Exchequer, or else state bankruptcy. In either case Russian foreign policy would be finished.
One thing is clear: in these circumstances the fledgling Russian bourgeoisie has the state completely in its power. In all economic matters of importance the state must do its bidding. If for the time being the bourgeoisie continues to put up with the despotic autocracy of the Tsar and his officials, it is only because this autocracy, mitigated as it is by the venality of the bureaucracy offers it more guarantees than would changes even of a bourgeois-liberal nature, whose consequences no one could foresee, given the present internal situation in Russia. And so the transformation of the country into a capitalist industrial nation, the proletarianisation of a large proportion of the peasantry and the decay of the old communistic commune proceeds at an ever quickening pace.
Whether enough of this commune has been saved so that, if the occasion arises, as Marx and I still hoped in 1882, it could become the point of departure for communist development in harmony with a sudden change of direction in Western Europe, I do not presume to say. But this much is certain: if a remnant of this commune is to be preserved, the first condition is the fall of tsarist despotism — revolution in Russia. This will not only tear the great mass of the nation, the peasants, away from the isolation of their villages, which comprise their “mir”, their “world”, and lead them out onto the great stage, where they will get to know the outside world and thus themselves, their own situation and the means of salvation from their present distress; it will also give the labour movement of the West fresh impetus and create new, better conditions in which to carry on the struggle, thus hastening the victory of the modern industrial proletariat, without which present-day Russia can never achieve a socialist transformation, whether proceeding from the commune or from capitalism.