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Apropos of an Anniversary

V. I. Lenin
Mysl, No. 3, February 1911.

Lenin Collected Works, Volume 17, pages 110-118.

The fiftieth anniversary of the so-called Peasant Reform raises many interesting questions. Here we can touch only upon some of the economic and historical issues, deferring publicist topics in the narrower sense of the term to another occasion.

About ten or fifteen years ago, when the controversies between the Narodniks and the Marxists were first brought before the general public, the difference in the appraisal of the so-called Peasant Reform emerged time and again as one of the most important issues of that controversy. The theoreticians of Narodism, for instance, the well-known Mr. V. V., or Nikolai—on, regarded the basic features of the Peasant Reform of 1861 as something fundamentally different from, and hostile to, capitalism. They said that the Regulations of February 19 legalised the “endowment of the producer with means of production” and sanctioned “people’s production” as distinctfrom capitalist production. They regarded the Regulations of February 19 as an earnest of the non-capitalist evolution of Russia.

Even then the Marxists opposed a fundamentally different view to this theory. The Regulations of February 19 were one of the episodes in the replacement of the serf (or feudal) mode of production by the bourgeois (or capitalist) mode. According to this view, the Regulations contain no other historico-economic elements. “The endowment of the producer with means of production” is an empty, sentimental phrase which glosses over the plain fact that the peasants, who are small producers in agriculture, were being converted from producers engaged primarily in natural economy into producers of commodities. The precise extent to which commodity production had developed in peasant economy in various parts of Russia during that epoch is another question. But it is beyond doubt that the “emancipated” peasant was entering the sphere of commodity production and none other. “Free labour” in place[1] of serf labour thus meant nothing more than the free labour of the wage-worker or small independent producer under the conditions of commodity production, i.e., of bourgeois social and economic relations. The land redemption payments brought out this nature of the Reform in even bolder relief, for they lent a stimulus to monetary economy, i.e., they increased the peasant’s dependence on the market.

The Narodniks saw in the emancipation of the peasants with the provision of land allotments a non-capitalist principle, the “genesis” of what they called “people’s production”. In the emancipation of the peasants without land they saw the capitalist principle. The Narodniks (particularly Mr. Nikolai–on) based this view on the teachings of Marx, citing in its justification that the freeing of the worker from the means of production is a fundamental condition of the capitalist mode of production. A singular phenomenon: beginning with the eighties (if not still earlier) Marxism was already such an indisputable, actually dominating force among the progressive social doctrines in Western Europe, that for a long time in Russia theories hostile to Marxism could not be openly expressed. These theories made sophistry of Marxism and falsified it (sometimes unconsciously); they appeared to be Marxist and, “by referring to Marx”, tried to deny the application of Marx’s theory to Russia! The Narodnik theory of Mr. Nikolai–on claimed to be “Marxist” (in the 1880s and 1890s); subsequently the liberal-bourgeois theory of Messrs. Struve, Tugan-Baranovsky and Co. began by “almost” fully accepting Marxism, these gentlemen developed their views and preached their liberalism under the guise of “the further critical development” of Marxism. We shall probably have more than one occasion to return to this singular feature of the development of Russian social theories since the end of the nineteenth century (up to and including contemporary opportunism—liquidationism, which clings to Marxist terminology in order to cover up its anti-Marxist substance).

What interests us at the present moment is the Narodnik appraisal of the “great Reform”. It is a radical mistake to think that the striving to deprive the peasants of land in 1861 represented a capitalist tendency, whereas the striving to endow them with land was anti-capitalist, socialist (the best among the Narodniks saw in the term “people’s production” a pseudonym for socialism, a pseudonym imposed by censorship restrictions). This view is a great sin against historical truth; it transfers Marx’s “ready-made” formula (a “formula” which is applicable only to highly developed commodity production) to the conditions of serfdom. Depriving the peasants of land in 1861 in most cases actually meant the creation, not of a free labourer in capitalist production, but of a bonded (i. e., in fact a semi-serf or even almost serf) tenant on the same land that belonged to the “master”, the landowner. Actually, the “allotments” of 1861 meant in most cases the creation, not of a free and independent farmer, but of a tenant bound to the land and in fact compelled to perform the same old corvée by cultivating the landlord’s land with his own farm equipment, in payment for pasture, for meadows, for the necessary arable land, etc.

The peasant entered the sphere of bourgeois social relations to the extent to which he was actually, and not merely nominally, emancipated from serf relations (the essence of these relations was “labour-rent”, i. e., the labour performed for the landowner by a peasant endowed with an allotment of land). But this real emancipation from feudal relations was much more complicated than the Narodniks thought. At that time the struggle between those who were in favour of depriving the peasants of land and those in favour of “endowing” them, often expressed merely a struggle between two feudalist camps, a dispute over the question as to whether it was more advantageous to the landowner to have a tenant (or a peasant rendering labour service) without any land or with an “allotment”, i. e., one bound to the locality, bound by a patch of land insufficient to provide for his living and therefore compelling him to hire himself out for a “livelihood” (selling himself into bondage to the landowner).

On the other hand, there is no doubt that the greater the amount of land the peasants received upon their emancipation, and the cheaper the price they had to pay for it, the more rapidly, fully and freely would capitalism have developed in Russia, and the sooner would the survivals of serfdom and bondage have disappeared, the larger the home market would have become, and the more certain would the development of towns, industry and trade have been.

The Narodniks made the mistake of dealing with the problem in a utopian manner, in the abstract, unrelated to the, actual historic circumstances. They declared that the “allotment” was the basis for independent small-scale farming. Insofar as this was true, the peasant “endowed with land” became a commodity producer and found himself in the conditions of bourgeois society. Actually, however, the “allotment” was too often so small, so burdened with excessive payments, situated so unfavourably for the peasant and so “fortunately” for the landlord, that the “allotment” peasant inevitably found himself in a position of unredeemable bondage, his status remained, in fact, the same as under the relations of serfdom; he performed the same old corvée service (in the form of labour-service, etc.).

Thus, two tendencies were latent in Narodism, which the Marxists defined even then, when they referred to the liberal-Narodnik views, the liberal-Narodnik appraisal, etc. Insofar as the Narodniks painted the Reform of 1861 in bright colours, forgetting that in the majority of cases “endowment” actually meant that the landlords’ estates were ensured a supply of cheap slave labour, a supply of cheap hands tied to the place of residence, they descended (often without being aware of it) to the point of view of liberalism, the point of view of the liberal bourgeois, or even of the liberal landowner; objectively they became the advocates of the type of capitalist evolution which is most burdened with landowner traditions, is most bound up with the feudal past, of which it is ridding itself most slowly and with the greatest difficulty.

The Narodniks, however, were bourgeois democrats to the extent that they did not idealise the Reform of 1861, but fought ardently and sincerely for the smallest payments and the largest “allotments”, for “allotments” without any restrictions, with the utmost cultural, legal, etc., independence for the peasant. Their only shortcoming was that their democracy was by no means always consistent and determined and that, moreover, they failed to realise that it was of a bourgeois nature. Incidentally, it may be said that the most “Left” of our Social-Narodniks even to this day often conceive of the word “bourgeois” in this connotation as smacking of “politics”, whereas, in point of fact, the term bourgeois democracy represents the only exact scientific definition from the Marxist point of view.

These two tendencies in Narodism—the liberal and the democratic—were already quite clearly indicated at the time of the Reform of 1861. We cannot dwell here in greater detail on an analysis of these tendencies, particularly on the connection between utopian socialism and the second of these tendencies. We shall merely mention the difference between the ideological and political trends of, say, Kavelin, on the one hand, and Chernyshevsky, on the other.

When we contemplate, in a general way, the change in the entire system of the Russian state in 1861, we are bound to admit that that change was a step in the transformation of feudal monarchy into a bourgeois monarchy. This is true not only from the economic, but also from the political point of view. We need only recall the nature of the reforms in the sphere of the judiciary, administration, local self-government, etc., which followed the Peasant Reform of 1861, to see the correctness of this statement. One may argue whether this “step” was a great or a small one, whether it was quick or slow, but the direction in which this step was taken is so clear, it has been made so clear by all the subsequent events, that there can hardly be two opinions about it. It is, however, all the more necessary to stress this direction because of the more frequent half-baked opinions we hear nowadays to the effect that “steps” in the transformation into a bourgeois monarchy in Russia have been taken only in very recent years.

Of the two Narodnik tendencies, referred to, the democratic tendency, the tendency not based on the intelligence and initiative of landowning, bureaucratic and bourgeois circles, was extremely weak in 1861. That is why matters went no further than a very small “step” in the transformation into a bourgeois monarchy. Still, this weak tendency existed even then. It showed itself subsequently too, sometimes more strongly and sometimes more feebly, both in the sphere of social ideas and in the sphere of the social movement characteristic of the entire post-Reform period. This tendency grew with each decade of the period, nurtured by each step in the economic evolution of the country and, consequently, also by the combination of social, juridical and cultural conditions.

These two tendencies, which were only just beginning to emerge in 1861, found a fairly full and open expression forty-four years after the Peasant Reform, in the most varied spheres of social life, in the various twists and turns of the social movement, in the activity of large masses of the population and of important political parties. The Cadets and the Trudoviks—taking each of these terms in its broadest meaning—are the direct descendants and successors, the actual vehicles of the two tendencies which were already taking shape half a century ago. The connection between 1861 and the events that took place forty-four years later is in disputable and obvious. And the fact that both tendencies have survived during half a century, that they have grown stronger, developed and expanded, unquestionably testifies to their strength; it shows that they are deeply rooted in the entire economic structure of Russia.

Menshikov, the Novoye Vremya writer, expressed this connection between the Peasant Reform and the events of the recent past in the following singular tirade: “The year 1861 failed to prevent 1905—hence, why shout about the greatness of a reform which has failed so miserably?” (Novoye Vremya No. 12512, of January 11, “An Unnecessary Jubilee”.)

With these words Menshikov inadvertently touched upon extremely interesting scientific problems of history; first, the interrelation between reform and revolution in general, and, secondly, the connection, interdependence, and affinity between the socio-historical trends, strivings and tendencies of 1861 and the 1905–07 period.

The concept “reform”, is undoubtedly the opposite of the concept “revolution”. Failure to remember this contrast, failure to remember the line that divides these two concepts, constantly leads to very serious mistakes in all historical discussions. But this contrast is not something absolute, this line is not something dead, but alive and changing, and one must be able to define it in each particular case. The Reform of 1861 remained but a reform owing to the extreme feebleness, ignorance and lack of cohesion between the social elements for whom change was essential.

That is the reason for such marked feudal features in this reform, that is why it was so full of bureaucratic monstrosities and brought the peasants such untold misfortunes. Our peasantry has suffered much more from the inadequate development of capitalism than it has from capitalism itself.

Although this reform remained nothing but a reform because of the weakness of certain social elements, it created, despite all obstacles and hindrances, conditions for the further development of those elements; these conditions expanded the area in which the old contradictions came into play and extended the number of groups, strata and classes of the population that took a conscious part in “the play” of contradictions. That is why the followers of the democratic tendency that was hostile to liberalism at the time of the 1861 Reform, those who then (and for a long time after) appeared to be mere individuals with no ground under their feet—that is why those people proved actually to be on incomparably more solid ground when the conditions that had been little more than embryonic in 1861 grew to maturity. Those participants in the Reform of 1861 who regarded it as nothing more than a reform proved to be on more solid ground than the liberal reformists. The former will forever be remembered in history as the advanced representatives of their epoch; whereas the latter will be remembered as people who were irresolute, weak-willed and impotent in face of the forces of the old and obsolete.

In their theories, the Narodniks, beginning with 1861 (and their forerunners even prior to 1861), have, through out more than half a century, always advocated a different, i. e., non-capitalist, path for Russia. History has fully refuted their error. History has fully proved and the events of 1905-07, the action of the various classes of Russian society at that time, have graphically confirmed that Russia is developing along capitalist lines, and that there can be no other path for her development. But he would be a poor Marxist indeed who to this day failed to learn from the history of this half-century the real meaning of aspirations expressed in the course of half a century and embodied in an erroneous ideology, in an endeavour to plot a “different” path for the fatherland to travel.

A comparison between 1861 and 1905–07 makes it perfectly clear that the real historical meaning of the Narodnik ideology consisted in contrasting two paths of capitalist development: one path involving the adaptation of the new, capitalist Russia to the old, the subordination of the for mer to the latter, thus impeding the course of development; the other—the path of supplanting the old by the new, of entirely removing the obsolete that is obstructing the new; of accelerating the course of development. The programmes of the Cadets and the Trudoviks—the former liberal, and the latter democratic—while inconsistent and at times confused and betraying a lack of understanding, represent a vivid expression of the actual paths of this development—both within the framework of capitalism—which have been steadfastly pursued for more than half a century.

The present period imperatively demands of us that we have a clear understanding of the conditions of these two paths, that we have a clear idea of the two tendencies of 1861 and of their subsequent evolution. We are witnessing a further change in the entire system of the Russian state, one more step in its transformation into a bourgeois monarchy. This new step, which is just as hesitant, just as vacillating, just as ill-chosen and just as unsound as the previous one, confronts us with the old problems. History has not yet decided which of the two paths of Russia’s capitalist development will finally determine her bourgeois system: the objective forces on which the decision depends are not yet exhausted. We cannot tell beforehand what the decision will be, before we have the experience of all the friction, clashes and conflicts that make up the life of society. We cannot tell beforehand what will be the resultant of the two tendencies that have been making themselves felt ever since 1861. But we can, and must, insist on a clear understanding of both tendencies, insist that Marxists (and this is one of their duties, in their capacity of “leaders”, in the period of disintegration, confusion, scepticism and worship of momentary success) should contribute their activity to this resultant—not in a negative form (like liquidationism or, in general, helpless drifting after one decadent mood or another), but in a positive form, in the form of up holding the interests of evolution in its entirety, its fundamental and most essential interests.

The representatives of the democratic tendency, while marching toward their goal, continually waver and are subject to the influence of liberalism. To prevent these waverings and to end this subjection is one of the most important historical tasks of Marxism in Russia.


[1] Insofar as this replacement was going on in actual facts we shall see further that it was a more complicated process than would appear on the surface. —Lenin
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