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Refugee Literature by Frederick Engels 1874

On Social Relations in Russia

Source: MECW, Volume 24, p. 39;
Written: between mid-May 1874 and April 1875;
First Published: part V as a pamphlet, parts I-IV in Der Volksstaat in 1875;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden

On the subject matter, Mr. Tkachov tells the German workers that, as regards Russia, I possess not even a “little knowledge”, possess nothing but “ignorance”, and he feels himself, therefore, obliged to explain the real state of affairs to them, particularly the reasons that, just at the present time, a social revolution could be accomplished in Russia with the greatest of ease, much more easily than in Western Europe.

“We have no urban proletariat, that is undoubtedly true; but, then, we also have no bourgeoisie; ... our workers will have to fight only against the political power — the power of capital is with us still only in embryo. And you, sir, are undoubtedly aware that the fight against the former is much easier than against the latter.”

The revolution that modern socialism strives to achieve is, briefly, the victory of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie and the establishment of a new organisation of society by the destruction of all class distinctions. This requires not only a proletariat to carry out this revolution, but also a bourgeoisie in whose hands the social productive forces have developed so far that they permit the final destruction of class distinctions. Among savages and semi-savages there likewise often exist no class distinctions, and every people has passed through such a state. It could not occur to us to re-establish this state, for the simple reason that class distinctions necessarily emerge from it as the social productive forces develop. Only at a certain level of development of these social productive forces, even a very high level for our modern conditions, does it become possible to raise production to such an extent that the abolition of class distinctions can constitute real progress, can be lasting without bringing about stagnation or even decline in the mode of social production. But the productive forces have reached this level of development only in the hands of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie, therefore, in this respect also is just as necessary a precondition for the socialist revolution as is the proletariat itself. Hence a man who says that this revolution can be more easily carried out in a country where, although there is no proletariat, there is no bourgeoisie either, only proves that he has still to learn the ABC of socialism.

The Russian workers — and these workers are, as Mr. Tkachov himself says, “tillers of the soil and, as such, not proletarians but owners” — have, therefore, an easier task, because they do not have to fight against the power of capital, but “only against the political power”, against the Russian state. And this state

“appears only at a distance as a power... It has no roots in the economic life of the people; it does not embody the interests of any particular estate... In your country the state is no imaginary power. It stands four square on the basis of capital; it embodies in itself” (!!) “certain economic interests... In our country the situation is just the reverse — our form of society owes its existence to the state, to a state hanging in the air, so to speak, one that has nothing in common with the existing social order, and has its roots in the past, but not in the present.”

Let us waste no time over the confused notion that the economic interests need the state, which they themselves create, in order to acquire a body, or over the bold contention that the Russian form of society (which, of course, must also include the communal property of the peasants) owes its existence to the state, or over the contradiction that this same state “has nothing in common” with the existing social order, which is supposed to be its very own creation. Let us rather examine at once this “state hanging in the air”, which does not represent the interests of even a single estate.

In European Russia, the peasants possess 105 million dessiatines [1 d. = 2.7 acres], the nobility (as I shall here term the big landowners for the sake of brevity) — 100 million dessiatines of land, of which about half belong to 15,000 nobles, each of whom consequently possesses, on average, 3,300 dessiatines. The area belonging to the peasants is, therefore, only a trifle bigger than that of the nobles. So, you see, the nobles have not the slightest interest in the existence of the Russian state, which protects them in the possession of half the country. To continue: the peasants pay 195 million rubies land tax annually for their half, the nobles — 13 million! The lands of the nobles are, on average, twice as fertile as those of the peasants, because during the settlement for the redemption of the corvée, the state not only took the greater part, but also the best part of the land from the peasants and gave it to the nobles, and for this worst land the peasants had to pay the nobility the price of the best. And the Russian nobility has no interest in the existence of the Russian state!

The peasants — taken in the mass — have been put by the redemption into a most miserable and wholly untenable position. Not only has the greatest and best part of their land been taken from them, so that, in all the fertile parts of the empire, the peasant land is far too small — under Russian agricultural conditions — for them to be able to make a living from it. Not only were they charged an excessive price for it, which was advanced to them by the state and for which they now have to pay interest and instalments on the principal to the state. Not only is almost the whole burden of the land tax thrown upon them, while the nobility escapes almost scot-free — so that the land tax alone consumes the entire ground rent value of the peasant land and more, and all further payments which the peasant has to make and which we will speak of immediately are direct deductions from that part of his income which represents his wages. Then, in addition to the land tax, to the interest and depreciation payments on the money advanced by the state, since the-recent introduction of local administration there are the provincial and district imposts as. well. The most essential consequence of this “reform” was fresh tax burdens for the peasants. The state retained its revenues in their entirety, but passed on a large part of its expenditures to the provinces and districts, which imposed new taxes to meet them, and in Russia it is the rule that the higher estates are almost tax exempt and the peasants pay almost everything.

Such a situation is as if specially created for the usurer, and with the almost unequalled talent of the Russians for trading on a lower level, for taking full advantage of favourable business situations and the swindling inseparable from this — Peter I long ago said that one Russian could get the better of three Jews — the usurer makes his appearance everywhere. When taxes are about to fall due, the usurer, the kulak — frequently a rich peasant of the same village community — comes along and offers his ready cash. The peasant must have the money at all costs and is obliged to accept the conditions of the usurer without demur. But this only gets him into a tighter fix, and he needs more and more ready cash. At harvest time, the grain dealer arrives; the need for money forces the peasant to sell part of the grain he and his family require for their subsistence. The grain dealer spreads false rumours, which lower prices, pays a low price and often even part of this in all sorts of highly priced goods; for the truck system is also highly developed in Russia. It is quite obvious that the great corn exports of Russia are based directly on starvation of the peasant population. — Another method of exploiting the peasant is the following: a speculator rents domain land from the government for a long term of years, and cultivates it himself as long as it yields a good crop without manure; then he divides it up into small plots and lets out the exhausted land at high rents to neighbouring peasants, who cannot manage on the income from their allotment. Here we have precisely the Irish middlemen, just as above the English truck system. In short, there is no country in which, in spite of the pristine savagery of bourgeois society, capitalistic parasitism is so developed, so covers and entangles the whole country, the whole mass of the population with its nets, as in Russia. And all these bloodsuckers of the peasants are supposed to have no interest in the existence of the Russian state, the laws and law courts of which protect their sleek and profitable practices!

The big bourgeoisie of Petersburg, Moscow, and Odessa, which has developed with unprecedented rapidity over the last decade, chiefly owing to the railways, and which cheerfully “went smash” along with the rest during the last swindle years, the grain, hemp, flax and tallow exporters, whose whole business is built on the misery of the peasants, the entire Russian large-scale industry, which only exists thanks to the protective tariffs granted it by the state — have all these important and rapidly growing elements of the population no interest in the existence of the Russian state? To say nothing of the countless army of officials, which swarms over Russia and plunders her, and here constitutes a real social estate. And when Mr. Tkachov assures us that the Russian state has “no roots in the economic life of the people”, that “it does not embody the interests of any particular estate”, that it hangs “in the air”, methinks it is not the Russian state that hangs in the air, but rather Mr. Tkachov.

It is clear that the condition of the Russian peasants, since the emancipation from serfdom, has become intolerable and cannot he maintained much longer, and that for this reason alone, if for no other, a revolution is in the offing in Russia. The question is only: what can be, what will be the result of this revolution? Mr. Tkachov says it will be a social one. This is pure tautology. Every real revolution is a social one, in that it brings a new class to power and allows it to remodel society in its own image. But he wants to say it will be a socialist one; it will introduce into Russia the form of society at which West European socialism aims, even before we in the West succeed in doing so — and that under the conditions of a society in which both proletariat and bourgeoisie appear only sporadically and at a low stage of development. And this is supposed to be possible because the Russians are, so to speak, the chosen people of socialism, and have artels[1] and communal ownership of the land.

The artel, which Mr. Tkachov mentions only incidentally, but with which we deal here because, since the time of Herzen, it has played a mysterious role with many Russians; the artel in Russia is a widespread form of association, the simplest form of free co-operation, such as is found for hunting among hunting tribes. Word and content are not of Slavic but of Tatar origin. Both are to be found among the Kirghiz, Yakuts, etc., on the one hand, and among the Lapps, Samoyeds and other Finnish peoples, on the other. That is why the artel developed originally in the North and East, by contact with Finns and Tatars, and not in the South-West. The severe climate necessitates industrial activity of various kinds, and so the lack of urban development and of capital is replaced, as far as possible, by this form of co-operation. — One of the most characteristic features of the artel, the collective responsibility of its members for one another to third parties, was originally based on blood relationship, like the mutual liability [Gewere] of the ancient Germans, blood vengeance, etc. — Moreover, in Russia the word artel is used for every form not only of collective activity, but also of collective institution. The Bourse is also an artel.

In workers’ artels, an elder (starosta, starshina) is always chosen who fulfils the functions of treasurer, bookkeeper, etc., and of manager, as far as necessary, and who receives a special salary. Such artels are formed:

1. for temporary enterprises, after the completion of which they dissolve;

2. for the members of one and the same trade, for instance, porters, etc.;

3. for permanent enterprises, industrial in the proper sense of the word.

They are established by a contract signed by all the members. Now, if these members cannot bring together the necessary capital, as very often happens, such as in the case of cheeseries and fisheries (for nets, boats, etc.), the artel falls prey to the usurer, who advances the amount lacking at a high interest rate, and thereafter pockets the greater part of the income from the work. Still more shamefully exploited, however, are the artels that hire themselves in a body to an employer as wage-labourers. They direct their industrial activity themselves and thus save the capitalist the cost of supervision. The latter lets to the members huts to live in and advances them the means of subsistence, which in turn gives rise to the most disgraceful truck system. Such is the case with the lumbermen and tar distillers in the Archangel gubernia, and in many trades in Siberia, etc. (Cf. Flerovsky, “The Condition of the Working Class in Russia”, St. Petersburg, 1869). Here, then, the artel serves to facilitate considerably the exploitation of the wage-worker by the capitalist. On the other hand, there are also artels which themselves employ wage-workers, who are not members of the association.

It is thus seen that the artel is a co-operative society that has arisen spontaneously and is, therefore, still very undeveloped, and as such neither exclusively Russian, nor even Slavic. Such societies are formed wherever there is a need for them. For instance, in Switzerland among the dairy farmers and in England among the fishermen, where they even assume a great variety of forms. The Silesian navvies (Germans, not Poles), who built so many German railways in the forties, were organised in fully fledged artels. True, the predominance of this form in Russia proves the existence in the Russian people of a strong impulse to associate, but is far from proving their ability to jump, with the aid of this impulse, from the artel straight into the socialist order of society. For that, it is necessary above all that the artel itself should be capable of development, that it shed its primitive form, in which, as we saw, it serves the workers less than it does capital, and rise at least to the level of the West European co-operative societies. But if we are to believe Mr. Tkachov for once (which, after all that has preceded, is certainly more than risky), this is by no means the case. On the contrary, he assures us with a pride highly indicative of his standpoint:

“As regards the co-operative and credit associations on the German” (!) “model, recently artificially transplanted to Russia, these have met with complete indifference on the part of the majority of our workers and have been a failure almost everywhere.”

The modern co-operative society has at least proved that it can run large-scale industry profitably on its own account (spinning and weaving in Lancashire). The artel is so far not only incapable of doing this; it must of necessity even be destroyed by big industry if it does not develop further.

The communal property of the Russian peasants was discovered in 1845 by the Prussian Government Councillor Haxthausen and trumpeted to the world as something absolutely wonderful, although Haxthausen could still have found survivals enough of it in his Westphalian homeland and, as a government official, it was even part of his duty to know them thoroughly. It was from Haxthausen that Herzen, himself a Russian landowner, first learned that his peasants owned the land in common, and he made use of the fact to describe the Russian peasants as the true vehicles of socialism, as born communists, in contrast to the workers of the aging, decayed European West, who would first have to go through the ordeal of acquiring socialism artificially. From Herzen this knowledge came to Bakunin, and from Bakunin to Mr. Tkachov. Let us listen to the latter:

“Our people ... in its great majority ... is permeated with the principles of common ownership; it is, if one may use the term, instinctively, traditionally communist. The idea of collective property is so closely interwoven with the whole world outlook of the Russian people” (we shall see immediately how far the world of the Russian peasant extends) “that today, when the government begins to understand that this idea is incompatible with the principles of a ‘well-ordered’ society, and in the name of these principles wishes to impress the idea of individual property on the consciousness and life of the people, it can succeed in doing so only with the help of the bayonet and the knout. It is clear from this that our people, despite its ignorance, is much nearer to socialism than the peoples of Western Europe, although the latter are more educated.”

In reality, communal ownership of the land is an institution found among all Indo-Germanic peoples at a low level of development, from India to Ireland, and even among the Malays, who are developing under Indian influence, for instance, on Java. As late as 1608, in the newly conquered North of Ireland, the legally established communal ownership of the land served the English as a pretext for declaring the land to be ownerless and, as such, escheated to the Crown. In India, a whole series of forms of communal ownership has been in existence down to the present time. In Germany it was general; the communal lands still to be found here and there are a relic of it; and often still distinct traces of it, temporary divisions of the communal lands, etc., are also to be found, especially in the mountains. More exact references and details with regard to old German communal ownership may be consulted in the various writings of Maurer, which are classic on this question. In Western Europe, including Poland and Little Russia, at a certain stage in social development, this communal ownership became a fetter, a brake on agricultural production, and was increasingly eliminated. In Great Russia (that is, Russia proper), on the other hand, it persists until today, thereby proving, in the first place, that here agricultural production and the social conditions in the countryside corresponding to it are still very undeveloped, as is actually the case. The Russian peasant lives and has his being only in his village community; the rest of the world exists for him only in so far as it interferes with his community. This is so much the case that, in Russian, the same word “mir” means, on the one hand, “world” and, on the other, “peasant community”. “Ves’ mir”, the whole world, means to the peasant the meeting of the community members. Hence, when Mr. Tkachov speaks of the “world outlook” of the Russian peasants, he has obviously translated the Russian “mir” incorrectly. Such a complete isolation of individual communities from one another, which creates throughout the country similar, but the very opposite of common, interests, is the natural basis for oriental despotism; and from India to Russia this form of society, wherever it has prevailed, has always produced it and always found its complement in it. Not only the Russian state in general, but even its specific form, tsarist despotism, instead of hanging in the air, is a necessary and logical product of Russian social conditions with which, according to Mr. Tkachov, it has “nothing in common"! — Further development of Russia in a bourgeois direction would here also destroy communal ownership little by little, without any need for the Russian government to intervene with “bayonet and knout”. And this especially since the communally owned land in Russia is not cultivated by the peasants in common, so that the product may then be divided, as is still the case in some districts in India; on the contrary, from time to time the land is divided up among the various heads of families, and each cultivates his allotment for himself. Consequently, very great differences in degree of prosperity are possible and actually exist among the members of the community. Almost everywhere there are a few rich peasants among them — here and there millionaires — who play the usurer and suck the blood of the mass of the peasants. No one knows this better than Mr. Tkachov. While he wants the German workers to believe that the “idea of collective ownership” can be driven out of the Russian peasants, these instinctive, traditional communists, only by bayonet and knout, he writes on page 15 of his Russian pamphlet:

“Among the peasants a class of usurers (kulakov) is making its way, a class of people who buy up and rent the lands of peasants and nobles — a muzhik aristocracy.”

These are the same kind of bloodsuckers as we described more fully above.

The severest blow to communal ownership was dealt again by the redemption of the corvée. The greater and better part of the land was allotted to the nobility; for the peasant there remained scarcely enough, often not enough, to live on. In addition, the forests were given to the nobles; the wood for fuel, implements and building, which the peasant formerly might fetch there for nothing, he now has to buy. Thus, the peasant has nothing now but his house and the bare land, without means to cultivate it and, on average, without enough land to support him and his family from one harvest to the next. Under such conditions and under the pressure of taxes and usurers, communal ownership of the land is no longer a blessing; it becomes a fetter. The peasants often run away from it, with or without their families, to earn their living as migratory labourers, and leave their land behind them.

It is clear that communal ownership in Russia is long past its period of florescence and, to all appearances, is moving towards its disintegration. Nevertheless, the possibility undeniably exists of raising this form of society to a higher one, if it should last until the circumstances are ripe for that, and if it shows itself capable of developing in such manner that the peasants no longer cultivate the land separately, but collectively; [In Poland, particularly in the Grodno gubernia, where the nobility for the most part was ruined by the insurrection of 1863, the peasants now frequently buy or rent estates from the nobles and cultivate them unpartitioned and on their collective account. And these peasants have not had communal ownership for centuries and are not Great Russians, but Poles, Lithuanians and Byelorussians.] of raising it to this higher form without it being necessary for the Russian peasants to go through the intermediate stage of bourgeois small holdings. This, however, can only happen if, before the complete break-up of communal ownership, a proletarian revolution is successfully carried out in Western Europe, creating for the Russian peasant the preconditions requisite for such a transition, particularly the material things he needs, if only to carry through the revolution, necessarily connected therewith, of his whole agricultural system. It is, therefore, sheer bounce for Mr. Tkachov to say that the Russian peasants, although “owners”, are “nearer to socialism” than the propertyless workers of Western Europe. Quite the opposite. If anything can still save Russian communal ownership and give it a chance of growing into a new, really viable form, it is a proletarian revolution in Western Europe.

Mr. Tkachov treats the political revolution just as lightly as he does the economic one. The Russian people, he relates, “protests incessantly” against its enslavement, now in the form of “religious sects ... refusal to pay taxes ... robber bands” (the German workers will be glad to know that, accordingly, Schinderhannes is the father of German Social-Democracy) “... incendiarism ... revolts ... and hence the Russian people may be termed an instinctive revolutionist”. Therefore, Mr. Tkachov is convinced that “it is only necessary to evoke an outburst in a number of places at the same time of all the accumulated bitterness and discontent, which ... is always seething in the breast of our people”. Then “the union of the revolutionary forces will come about of itself, and the fight ... must end favourably for the people’s cause. Practical necessity, the instinct of self-preservation”, will then achieve, quite of themselves, “a firm and indissoluble alliance among the protesting village communities”.

It is impossible to conceive of a revolution on easier and more pleasant terms. One starts shooting, at three or four places simultaneously, and the “instinctive revolutionise”, “practical necessity” and the “instinct of self-preservation” do the rest “of themselves”. Being so dead easy, it is simply incomprehensible why the revolution has not been carried out long ago, the people liberated and Russia transformed into the model socialist country.

Actually, matters are quite different. The Russian people, this instinctive revolutionise, has, true enough, made numerous isolated peasant revolts against the nobility and against individual officials, but never against the tsar, except when a false tsar put himself at its head and claimed the throne. The last great peasant rising, under Catherine II, was only possible because Yemelyan Pugachov claimed to be her husband, Peter III, who allegedly had not been murdered by his wife, but dethroned and clapped in prison, and had now escaped. The tsar is, on the contrary, the earthly god of the Russian peasant: Bog vysok Car daljok — God is on high and the tsar far away, is his cry in hour of need. There is no doubt that the mass of the peasant population, especially since the redemption of the corvée, has been reduced to a condition that increasingly forces on it a fight also against the government and the tsar; but Mr. Tkachov will have to try to sell his fairy-tale of the “instinctive revolutionise” elsewhere.

Then again, even if the mass of the Russian peasants were ever so instinctively revolutionary, even if we imagined that revolutions could be made to order, just as one makes a piece of flowered calico or a teakettle — even then I ask, is it permissible for anyone over twelve years of age to imagine the course of a revolution in such an utterly childish manner as is the case here? And remember, further, that this was written after the first revolution made on this Bakuninist model — the Spanish one of 1873 — had so brilliantly failed. There, too, they let loose at several places simultaneously. There, too, it was calculated that practical necessity and the instinct of self-preservation would, of themselves, bring about a firm and indissoluble alliance between the protesting communities. And what happened? Every village community, every town defended only itself; there was no question of mutual assistance and, with only 3,000 men, Pavia overcame one town after another in a fortnight and put an end to the entire anarchist glory (cf. my Bakuninists at Work, where this is described in detail).

Russia undoubtedly is on the eve of a revolution. Her financial affairs are in extreme disorder. Taxes cannot be screwed any higher, the interest on old state loans is paid by means of new loans, and every new loan meets with greater difficulties; money can now be raised only on the pretext of building railways! The administration, corrupt from top to bottom as of old, the officials living more from theft, bribery and extortion than on their salaries. The entire agricultural production — by far the most essential for Russia — completely dislocated by the redemption settlement of 1861; the big landowners, without sufficient labour power; the peasants without sufficient land, oppressed by taxation and sucked dry by usurers; agricultural production declining by the year. The whole held together with great difficulty and only outwardly by an oriental despotism the arbitrariness of which we in the West simply cannot imagine; a despotism that, from day to day, not only comes into more glaring contradiction with the views of the enlightened classes and, in particular, with those of the rapidly developing bourgeoisie of the capital, but, in the person of its present bearer, has lost its head, one day making concessions to liberalism and the next, frightened, cancelling them again and thus bringing itself more and more into disrepute. With all that, a growing recognition among the enlightened strata of the nation concentrated in the capital that this position is untenable, that a revolution is impending, and the illusion that it will be possible to guide this revolution along a smooth, constitutional channel. Here all the conditions of a revolution are combined, of a revolution that, started by the upper classes of the capital, perhaps even by the government itself, must be rapidly carried further, beyond the first constitutional phase, by the peasants; of a revolution that will be of the greatest importance for the whole of Europe, if only because it will destroy at one blow the last, so far intact, reserve of the entire European reaction. This revolution is surely approaching. Only two events could still delay it: a successful war against Turkey or Austria, for which money and firm alliances are necessary, or — a premature attempt at insurrection, which would drive the possessing classes back into the arms of the government.


<"n1">1. Cooperative and semi-formal associations for fishing, mining, commerce, of loaders, loggers, thieves, beggars, etc. Often artels worked far from home and lived as a commune. Payment for job done was distributed according to verbal agreements, quite often in equal shares. Often artels were seasonal. Over time, formalized types of artel emerged, with internal hierarchy and legal agreements.