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Works of Karl Marx 1858

The Emancipation Question

Source: MECW, Volume 16, p. 139;
Written: on December 29 and 31, 1858;
First published: in the New-York Daily Tribune, January 17 and 22, 1859.


Berlin, Dec. 29, 1858

The great “initiator” (to use a Mazzinian term) of the Russian Revolution, the Emperor Alexander II, has taken a new step in advance. On Nov. 13, last, the Imperial Central Committee for the abolition of servitude ... finally signed its report to the Emperor, in which the bases are laid down on which the emancipation of the serfs is proposed to be carried out. The fundamental principles are the following:

I. The peasants cease at once to be serfs, and enter into a state of “provisional obligation” toward their landlords. This state is to last for twelve years, during which they enjoy all the rights, personal and proprietary, of all other taxable subjects of the Empire. Serfdom and all its attributes, are abolished forever, without any consideration being paid to their former proprietors; for, says the report, serfdom was arbitrarily introduced by Czar Boris Godunov, [This is anything but correct. Boris Godunov (ukase of Nov. 2, 1601) put an end to the right of the peasantry to travel about the Empire, and tied them to the estate to which they belonged by birth or residence. Under his successors the power of the nobility over the peasantry increased rapidly, and a state of serfdom became gradually the general condition of the latter. But this remained an illegal usurpation on the part of the boyars, until Peter the Great in 1723 legalized it. The peasants, without being freed from the bonds which fettered them to the estates, now were also made the personal property of the noble owner of that estate; he obtained the right to sell them, singly or in lots, with or without the land, and, in consideration of this, was made personally responsible for them and their taxes to the government. Subsequently [in 1783] Catherine If, by one stroke of the pen, turned four or five millions of comparatively free peasants in the newly-acquired western and southern provinces into serfs. But it would not do in Russian official documents to mention such facts respecting Peter I and Catherine II; and poor Boris Godunov is made to bear the responsibility of the sins of all his successors.] grew by an abuse of power into part and parcel of the common law, and thus, having been created by the will of the sovereign, may also be abolished by the will of the sovereign. As to a pecuniary consideration for its abolition, such a money payment in return for rights which belong to the peasantry by nature, and should never have been taken away from them, would form, says the report, a disgraceful page, indeed, in Russian history.

II. During the twelve years of provisional obligation, the peasant remains attached to the estate; but in case the landlord cannot find him at least five dessiatines of land to cultivate for himself, he is at liberty to leave the estate. The same liberty is allowed him if he finds somebody else to cultivate his allotment, so long as he pays his taxes to the Crown.

III and IV. Every village community retains the possession of the dwelling-houses of its members, with their inclosures, farmyards, gardens, etc., for which a rent of 3 per cent per annum on the appraised value is paid to the landlord. The community has the right to compel the landlord to have this value appraised by a mixed commission of two landlords and two peasants. Whenever the community please, they can buy their homesteads out and out by paying down the appraised value.

V. The land allotments to be given by the landlords to the peasants are thus regulated: Where there are on an estate more than six dessiatines to each serf inscribed on it, every adult male peasant receives an allotment of arable land of nine dessiatines; where there is less land, two-thirds of the whole arable land are delivered up to the peasants; and where there are so many peasants on an estate that out of these two-thirds there cannot be found five dessiatines, at least, for every adult male, the land is divided into allotments of five dessiatines, and those who, by lot, are excluded from receiving any, receive passports from the village authorities, and are at liberty to go where they like. As to firewood, the landlord is bound to find it for the peasants in his forests, at a price to be fixed beforehand.

VI. In return for these advantages, the peasant has the following corvées to furnish to the landlord: For every dessiatine allotted, ten work days with a horse and ten work days without (in case of nine dessiatines, 180 work days per annum). The value of his corvée is to be fixed, in money, in every government (province) after this rate, that one day of corvée is considered worth one-third only of one day of free labor. After the first seven years, one-seventh of these corvée and in every following year another seventh, may be commuted into a corn-rent.

VII. The personal serfs, such as are not attached to a particular estate, but to the family mansion or the person of their lord, will have to serve their lords for ten years, but will receive wages. They may, however, buy their liberty any time, at 300 roubles for a man and 120 roubles for a woman.

IX. The landlord remains the chief of the village community, and has the right of veto against their resolutions; but in such a case an appeal lies to a mixed commission of nobles and peasants.

Such are the contents of this important document, which expresses, in an indirect manner, the ideas of Alexander II on the great social question of Russia. I have omitted chapters VIII, which treats of the organization of the village communities, and X which merely gives the legal forms in which the official documents relating to this change are to be made out. A very superficial comparison shows that this report is a mere continuation, and, indeed, a filling up, of the programme issued by the Central Committee last Spring, to the various corporations of nobles throughout the Empire. This programme, the ten heads of which correspond exactly to the ten chapters of the report, was, in fact, a mere form made out, to show the nobles in what direction they were to act, and which they were expected to fill up. But, the more they entered upon the question the greater was their repugnance; and it is very significant that after eight months, the Government have found themselves obliged to fill up this form themselves, and to draw up that plan which was to be supposed to be a spontaneous act of the nobles.

So much for the history of the above document; now for its contents.

If the Russian nobility do not think that the “4th of August” (1789) has yet arrived, and that so far there is no necessity of sacrificing their privileges on the altar of their country, the Russian Government is going a great deal faster; it has already arrived at the “declaration of the rights of man.” What, indeed, do you think of Alexander II, proclaiming “rights which belong to the peasantry by nature, and of which they ought never to have been deprived"? Verily, these are strange times! In 1846, a Pope initiating a liberal movement; in 1858, a Russian Autocrat, a true samoderjetz vserossiiski, proclaiming the rights of man! And we shall see that the Czar’s proclamation will have as world-wide an echo, and an ultimate effect of far greater magnitude than the Pope’s liberalism.

The first of the parties dealt with in this report is the nobility. If they refuse to celebrate a 4th of August, the Government tells them plainly enough that they will be compelled to do so. Every chapter of the report includes a pungent material loss to the aristocracy. One of the modes in which the nobles have turned their human capital was to hire them out, or to allow them, on payment of an annual sum (obrok), to travel about and gain a living as they pleased. This custom suited admirably both the purses of the nobles and the roving character of the Russian serf. It was one of the chief sources of income to the former. By chapter I this is proposed to be done away with, without any payment in return. Not only this: By chapter II every serf to whom the lord cannot allot 5 dessiatines of arable land is free in his own right, and can go where he pleases. By chap. Ill-V, the lord is deprived of the free disposal of something like two-thirds of his land, and compelled to assign it to the peasants. It is true, they occupy it now, but under his control, and in consideration of services which were fixed entirely by him. Now, the land is to belong, in reality, to the peasants, who are made tenants in perpetuity, who obtain the right to buy, out and out, their homesteads, and whose services, though fixed at a very high rate, are yet to be immutably fixed by a legal enactment, and, worse still, may be commuted at a (to them) pretty advantageous tariff. Even the dvorovye, the domestic servants of the hall, are to be paid wages, and, if inclined, may buy their liberty. And what is worse, the serfs are to receive the rights of all other citizens, which means to say that they will have the right, hitherto unknown to them, to bring actions against their lords, and to bear witness against them in Courts of law; and though the lords remain the chiefs of the peasants on their estates, and retain a certain jurisdiction over them, still the extortions by which a large portion of the Russian nobility have scraped together the means to keep fashionable lorettes in Paris and to gamble at German watering places, will undergo a vast limitation in future. But, in order to judge of the effect such a reduction of income would have upon the Russian nobles, let us cast a glance at their financial position. The whole territorial nobility of Russia is indebted to the Credit Banks (instituted by the Crown) in the sum of 400,000,000 silver roubles, for which sum about 13,000,000 of serfs are pledged to these banks. The whole of the serf population of Russia (excluding the Crown peasants) amounts to 23,750,000 (census of 1857). Now it is evident that of the owners of serfs the smaller ones are the principal contractors of this debt, while the larger ones are comparatively free from debt. From the census of 1857 it appears that about 13,000,000 of serfs belong to landlords owning less than 1,000 serfs each, while the remaining 10,750,000 belong to proprietors holding more than 1,000 serfs each. It stands to reason that the latter will nearly represent the unencumbered, and the former the encumbered nobles of Russia. This may not be quite exact, but it comes near enough to. be generally correct.

The number of landed proprietors owning from one to 500 “souls,” according to the census of 1857, is 105,540, while that of nobles owning 1,000 souls and above is not more than 4,015. Thus, it would appear that, at the lowest estimate, nine-tenths of the whole Russian aristocracy are deeply indebted to the credit banks, or, what is tantamount, to the Crown. But it is notorious that the Russian nobility are, moreover, indebted, to a large extent, to private individuals, bankers, tradesmen, Jews and usurers, and that the great majority are so heavily incumbered as to leave them but a nominal interest in their possessions. Those that were still struggling with ruin were completely broken down by the heavy sacrifices of the late war, when, with heavy taxes, both in men, money and corvées, they found the egress for their produce shut up, and had to contract loans on extremely onerous conditions. And now they are called upon entirely to resign, without any return, a great portion of their revenue, and to regulate the remainder of their income in a manner which will not only reduce it, but also maintain it at the reduced limit.

With a nobility like the Russian, the consequences are easily foreseen. Unless they agree to see the great majority of their order ruined, or brought at once to bankruptcy, in order to be merged in that class of bureaucratic nobles whose rank and position depends entirely upon the Government, they must resist this attempt at enfranchising the peasantry. They do resist it; and if, as is evident their present legal resistance will be of no avail against the sovereign will, they will be compelled to resort to other more telling means.


Berlin, Dec. 31, 1858

The resistance of the Russian nobles against the Czar’s schemes of emancipation, has already begun to manifest itself in a double way-the one passive, the other active. The personal harangues which Alexander II, on his journey through several provinces, condescended to address to his nobles, harangues now mildly clothed in the garb of philanthropic appeals, now assuming the persuasive form of didactic exposition, now rising to the shrill tones of command and menace — what have all these speeches resulted in? The nobles listened to them in servile attitude with diminished heads, but in their hearts they felt that the Emperor, who came to harangue, coax, persuade, inform, and menace them, had ceased to be that almighty Czar whose will was to stand in the place of reason itself. Consequently, they dared to give a negative answer by giving no answer at all, by not reechoing the Czar’s sentiments, and by adopting the simple process of procrastination in their different committees. They left the Emperor no chance but that of the Roman Church: Compelle intrare. However, the dull monotony of that restive silence was boldly broken through by the St. Petersburg Nobility Committee, which indorsed a paper drawn up by Mr. Platonoff, one of its members, and forming, in fact, a “petition of rights”. What was asked for was nothing less than a parliament of nobles to decide jointly with the Government not only the great question of the hour, but all political questions. It was in vain that Mr. Lanskoi, the Minister of the Interior, declined accepting this paper, and sent it back to the nobility with the angry remark, that it was not their business to club together for the purpose of presenting petitions, but simply to deliberate upon the questions put to them by the Government. In the name of the Committee, Gen. Shuwaloff returned to the assault, and, by the menace of himself carrying the paper to the Emperor, compelled Mr. Lanskoi to receive it. Thus, the Russian nobility in 1858, as the French nobility in 1788, has given out the watchword of the Assemblée des États généraux, or, in the Muscovite vernacular, of Semski Sobor or Semskaja Duma. Thus, in their interested attempts at maintaining the antiquated social basis of the pyramid intact, the nobles themselves attack its political point of gravitation. Besides, the esprit de vertige, as the old French emigrants styled the spirit of the age, has seized on them so violently, that the majority of the nobles go head over heels into the middle-class-joint-stock-company mania, while in the more western provinces the minority affects to lead and protect the newfangled literary agitation. To give some notion of those bold movements, it will suffice to say, that in 1858 the number of existing journals had already swelled to 180, while 109 fresh ones were announced for 1859. On the other hand there were founded in 1857, sixteen companies, with a capital of 303,900,000 roubles, while, from January to August, 1858, 21 fresh new companies with a capital of 36,175,000 roubles were added.

Let us now consider the other party to the changes intended by Alexander II. It is not to be forgotten how often the Russian Government has, before the eyes of the peasantry, conjured up the fata morgana of freedom. In the beginning of his reign, Alexander I called upon the nobility to emancipate the peasants, but without success. In 1812, when the peasantry were called on to enrol themselves in the opolchenie (militia), emancipation from serfdom, if not officially still with the tacit consent of the Emperor, was held out as the reward for patriotism; the men who had defended Holy Russia could no longer be treated as slaves. Under Nicholas even, a series of ukases restricted the power of the nobles over their serfs, authorized the latter (ukase of 1842) to conclude contracts with their owners as to the services to be rendered (by which indirectly they were admitted to plead in courts of law against their lords); undertook (1844) to guarantee, On the part of the Government, the fulfillment of the engagements made by the peasants under such contracts; enabled the serfs (1846) to buy their liberty, if the estate to which they were attached had to be sold by public auction; and enabled (1847) the corporation of serfs attached to such an estate, when first up for sale, to buy the whole estate. To the great astonishment of both government and nobles, it all at once appeared that the serfs were quite prepared for this, and actually did buy up one estate after the other; nay, that, in a great many cases, the landlord was but the nominal owner, having been liberated from his debts by the Tnoney of his own serfs who, of course, had taken such precautions as to secure to themselves virtually their own liberty and the property in the estate. When this came out, the Government, frightened at such symptoms of intelligence and energy among the serfs, and at the same time by the outbreaks of 1848 in Western Europe, had to look out for a remedy against an enactment which threatened to gradually turn the nobility out of their estates. But it was too late to repeal the ukase; and thus another ukase (March 15, 1848) extended the right of purchase, which so far had belonged to the commercial corporations of serfs only, to every individual serf. This measure not only tended to break up the associations, by villages and between the villages of a district, which hitherto had enabled the serfs to concentrate the capital for such purchase; it was, besides, seasoned with a few qualifications. The land could be bought by the serfs, but not the people attached to it; in other words, by buying the estate to which they belonged, the serfs did not buy their own freedom. On the contrary, they remained serfs, and the whole purchase-transaction was, moreover, made subject to the assent of the old landlord! To crown the whole, the numerous nobles who held their property, So to say, in trust for their serfs, were by the same ukase enabled and encouraged to break this trust and to recover full possession of their estates; all pleas on the part of the serfs being expressly excluded from the courts of’ law. Since then, all but the primary schools were closed to the serfs; and all hopes of emancipation appeared cut off, when the late war again compelled Nicholas to appeal to a general armament of the serfs, and to support this appeal, as usual, by promises of liberation from bondage, which the inferior servants of the Government were ordered to spread among the peasantry.

That after such antecedents, Alexander II should feel himself compelled to proceed seriously to an emancipation of the peasants, is quite natural. The result of his efforts, and the outlines of his plans, so far as they have been matured, are before its. What will the peasantry say to a twelve years probation, accompanied by heavy corvées, at the end of which they are to pass into a state which the Government does not venture to describe in any particular? What will they say to an organization of communal government, jurisdiction and police, which takes away all the powers of democratic self-government, hitherto belonging to every Russian village community, in order to create a system of patrimonial government, vested in the hands of the landlord, and modeled upon the Prussian rural legislation of 1808 and 1809? — a system utterly repugnant to the Russian peasant, whose whole life is governed by the village association, who has no idea of individual landed property, but considers the association to be the proprietors of the soil on which he lives.

If we recollect that since 1842 the insurrections of serfs against their landlords and stewards have become epidemic; that something like sixty nobles — according, even, to the official statistics of the Ministry of the Interior — have been annually murdered by the peasants; that during the late war the insurrections increased enormously, and in the western provinces were directed chiefly against the Government (a conspiracy was formed for an insurrection to break out the moment the Anglo-French army — the foreign enemy — approached!) — there can he little doubt that, even if the nobility does not resist the emancipation, the attempt to realize the committee’s proposals must he the signal for a tremendous conflagration among the rural population of Russia. But the nobility are sure to resist; the Emperor, tossed about between state necessity and expediency, between fear of the nobles and fear of the enraged peasants, is sure to vacillate; and the serfs, with expectations worked up to the highest pitch, and with the idea that the Czar is for them, but held down. by the nobles, are surer than ever to rise. And if they do, the Russian 1793 will be at hand; the reign of terror of these half-Asiatic serfs will be something unequaled in history; but it will be the second turning point in Russian history, and finally place real and general civilization in the place of that sham and show introduced by Peter the Great.