What is threatening the life of the Russian commune is neither historical inevitability nor a theory; it is oppression by the State and exploitation by capitalist intruders, who have been made powerful at the expense of the peasants by the very same State.
We live in a time of corporate global land grabs. Since the food price crisis of 2008, about 2,200 large-scale land acquisitions have been completed in developing nations, totaling 63 million hectares (131 million acres)—an area the size of California and Mississippi combined. Most of the acquisitions affected farmland that was managed as common property by small farmers, leading some analysts to describe the process as “commons grabbing.”2
In her 2018 book on these and other “new enclosures,” Sylvia Federici argues that Marxism offers no guidance to opponents of commons-grabbing. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, she writes, “fail at this moment of the new enclosures. The Marx of Capital would understand the new enclosures as he did the old, as a stage in the ‘progressive nature’ of capitalist development preparing the material conditions for a communist society.”
In her view, “the enclosures were for Marx a historically positive event” because they were “a stage in the ‘progressive nature’ of capitalist development, preparing the material conditions for a communist society.” Revolutionaries today, she writes, “must reject the idea—permeating most of Marx’s published work—that capitalism is or has been a necessary stage in the history of human emancipation and a necessary precondition for the construction of a communist society.”3
It is certainly true that some on the left, especially in the Soviet Union during and after Joseph Stalin’s rule, promoted that view. It was stated explicitly in Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism, an official textbook authored in 1960 by the Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union: “In spite of an immense variety of concrete details and particularities, all peoples travel what is basically the same path.… The development of society proceeds through the consecutive replacement, according to definite laws, of one socio-economic formation by another.”
Another influential book, written by members of the Moscow Institute of Social Philosophers, insisted that socialist governments must “purposefully influence the process of the disintegration of tribal and communal relations.” It goes on to add:
Countries that have freed themselves from colonial domination may study the experience of the Soviet Union in their efforts to overcome the historical backwardness of some regions, in particular those that still had communal relations at the time of the socialist revolution. The experience of the Soviet Union shows that in a society of social justice it is possible to transform tribal relations through the development of collective ownership.4
Statements like that, and the policies they reflected, justifiably alienated many peasant activists and their supporters. The question is: Do they accurately reflect Marx’s views?
In Capital, Marx described enclosures in England as “the usurpation of the common lands,” which led to “a degraded and almost servile condition of the mass of the people.” He sharply condemned “the whole series of thefts, outrages and popular misery that accompanied the forcible expropriation of the people.” He devoted several pages to exposing and denouncing the process by which peasants in the Scottish Highlands “were systematically hunted and routed out,” an outrage that was still ongoing while he was writing. Those words cannot possibly be read as endorsing the enclosure movement as historically positive.5
But the best account of Marx’s views on the subject can be found in his real-world response to the destruction of commons-based peasant communities in Russia—while it was actually happening.
Until the 1860s, almost all Russian peasants held their land in a form of communal ownership known as obshchina or mir, which was similar, but not identical, to the commons-based communities in pre-industrial England. The communes were arranged in various ways, but typically, each household farmed strips in open fields, and the land was periodically redistributed. Control of common lands and forests was managed by village assemblies.
In 1861, as part of a modernization program following Russia’s humiliating defeat in the Crimean War, Tsar Alexander II abolished serfdom and promised that the freed serfs would receive land. In fact, landlords were given nearly half of the common land, while former serfs were only granted the right to buy land. The price for plots—which were often smaller than those they had worked as serfs—was two years of unpaid labor for the landlord, followed by “redemption payments” to the state for forty-nine years. This provoked protests and riots in many parts of the country. In the first year, more than half of the 111,000 peasant communities in Russia rejected official plans for breaking up their communal villages. As late as 1892, an estimated three-quarters of peasants were still working communally owned land.6
Peasant discontent was paralleled by a wave of student radicalism, inspired in particular by the writings of Nikolai Chernyshevsky, who supported a form of socialism based on the peasant communes. In the late 1860s, some Narodniks (populists) discovered Marx’s works, and for several years the first edition of Capital was more widely read in Russia than anywhere else. A Russian translation—the first into any language from the original German—was published in 1872.
Much Russian attention focused on Part 8 of Capital (titled “So-Called Primitive Accumulation”), which liberals and radicals read and re-read as part of their debates about whether the peasant communes could provide a basis for socialism, or were doomed to be wiped away by ascendant capitalism. Inevitably, they turned to Marx himself for answers.
Marx was undoubtedly aware of the peasant unrest and youth radicalization in Russia in the 1860s, but his long hours of research for what would become the first volume of Capital—coupled with his leadership role in the International Workingmen’s Association (known as the First International)—left no time to address those subjects. When Capital was finally published in 1867, it contained just a handful of passing references to Russia, and nothing about Russian farming. Marx does not seem to have investigated social conditions in Russia before the late 1860s.
In October 1868, thirteen months after Capital was published, prominent Narodnik Nikolai Danielson wrote Marx proposing a Russian edition. Marx told Engels he was “naturally extraordinarily pleased,” and immediately plunged into the project, corresponding extensively with Danielson, and teaching himself Russian to ensure the accuracy of the translation, as well as to study the economic and social conditions of the Russian empire.7
In March 1870, a group of Russian exiles in Switzerland applied to join the International, naming Marx as their delegate on the General Council. Later that year, the group sent nineteen-year-old Elisabeth Dmitrieff, who later played a leading role in the Paris Commune, to attend General Council meetings in London. While there, she became close friends with the Marx family, living with his daughters for three months and discussing Russian politics with him and Engels at length. In January 1871, at Marx’s request, she wrote a summary of the issues of the day as she and her comrades saw them, focusing on the communes.
Referring to “the destinies of the peasant commune in Russia,” she wrote that:
Its transformation into small individual ownership is, unhappily, more than probable. All government measures…have the singular goal of introducing private property, by the means of suppressing collective responsibility. A law passed last year has already abolished [collective ownership] in communes with fewer than forty souls (men’s souls, because women, unhappily, do not have souls).8
Marx did not rush to judgment, or assume that what he had written about the commons elsewhere could simply be extended to Russia. Rather, as he later wrote, “in order to reach an informed judgment of the economic development of contemporary Russia, I learned Russian and then spent several long years studying official publications and others with a bearing on this subject.” Not until 1875 did he and Engels, who also knew Russian, feel qualified to address the subject publicly.9
The article, “On Social Relations in Russia”—serialized under Engels’s name in April 1875 in the newspaper Der Volksstaat and then published as a separate pamphlet—detailed the ruinous effects of breaking communes into individually owned farms. “The condition of the Russian peasants, since the emancipation from serfdom, has become intolerable and cannot be maintained much longer, and that for this reason alone, if for no other, a revolution is in the offing in Russia.” Although communal agriculture was in decline, still, “the possibility undeniably exists of raising this form of society to a higher one…without it being necessary for the Russian peasants to go through the intermediate stage of bourgeois small holdings.” To succeed, however, that transition would require material aid in order to modernize farming methods and overcome extreme poverty. “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.”10
In Russia, debates on the relevance of Marxism to Russian conditions and the peasant communes accelerated in the late 1870s. One of the sharpest criticisms of Marx came from Nikolai Mikhailovsky, the editor of the populist journal Otechestvenniye Zapiski (Notes from the Homeland). He charged that in Capital’s chapters on so-called primitive accumulation, Marx had expounded a “historico-philosophical” theory of “universal progress,” under which Russia was doomed to follow Western Europe’s brutal path to capitalism before socialism was possible.
“All this ‘maiming of women and children,’” Mikhailovksy wrote, “we still have before us, and from point of view of Marx’s historical theory, we should not protest them because it would mean acting to our own detriment; on the contrary, we should welcome them as the steep but necessary steps to the temple of happiness.” Nearly 150 years before Federici, Mikhailovsky argued that Marxists were “pleased to see the producers being divorced from the means of production…as the first phase of the inevitable, and, in the final result, a beneficial process.”11
Marx’s unfinished reply, written in 1878 but not published until 1886, reads like a direct response to some twenty-first century critics. He objected that Mikhailovsky’s critique incorrectly assumed that Capital’s chapters on so-called primitive accumulation constituted a “theory of the general course fatally imposed on all peoples, whatever the historical circumstances in which they find themselves.” In fact, “the chapter on primitive accumulation claims to do no more than to trace the path by which, in Western Europe, the capitalist economic order emerged from the womb of the feudal economic order.”
The historical possibilities of Russian development could only be identified by empirical study, not “with the master-key of a general historico-philosophical theory whose supreme virtue consists in being supra-historical.” After extensive study of Russian conditions, Marx wrote, “I have come to the conclusion that if Russia continues along the path it has followed since 1861, it will miss the finest chance ever offered by history to a people and undergo all the fateful vicissitudes of the capitalist regime.”12
Marx wrote cautiously in order to evade Tsarist censorship, but his meaning would have been crystal clear to anyone who had followed the debates: if the Russian communes survive, they could provide a direct path to socialism.
Marx developed his argument more fully in draft letters to Vera Zasulich, a populist who later became a member of Russia’s first Marxist organization. In February 1881, she asked his opinion about the argument of some Russians who insisted that “the rural commune is an archaic form destined to perish by history,” and attributed that view to Marx. Did he in fact support “the theory that it is historically necessary for every country in the world to pass through all the phases of capitalist production”? She stressed that this was not simply a theoretical question. Whether the commune “is capable of developing in a socialist direction” or “is destined to perish” was “a life-and-death question above all for our socialist party,” as it would entirely determine its strategy and activity.13
Marx wrote four long drafts in response, but finally decided, on March 8, 1881, to send a short reply that included this very clear statement: “The analysis provided in Capital…provides no reasons either for or against the vitality of the Russian commune, but the special study I have made of it, including a search for original source material, has convinced me that the commune is the fulcrum for social regeneration in Russia.”
That sentence, all by itself, undermines any claim that Marx saw the enclosure of Russian communes as “a historically positive event.” But we can get a more expansive view of his thinking from his drafts of the letter, which survived and were eventually published in 1924.
Once again, Marx insisted that he had “expressly restricted the ‘historical inevitability’ of this process to the countries of Western Europe,” where specific conditions prevailed. He went on: “But does this mean that the development of the ‘agricultural commune’ must follow this route in every circumstance [in every historical context]? Not at all. Its constitutive form allows of the following alternative: either the element of private property which it implies gains the upper hand over the collective element, or the reverse takes place. Everything depends upon the historical context in which it is situated.”
Because the situation in Russia was different, a different outcome was possible. The commune “occupies a unique situation without any precedent in history”:
Alone in Europe, it is still the organic, predominant form of rural life in a vast empire. Communal land ownership offers it the natural basis for collective appropriation, and its historical context—the contemporaneity of capitalist production—provides it with the ready-made material conditions for large-scale co-operative labour organised on a large scale. It may therefore incorporate the positive achievements developed by the capitalist system, without having to pass under its harsh tribute.
“The very existence of the Russian commune is now threatened by a conspiracy of powerful interests,” he noted—but if that threat is defeated, it “may become the direct starting-point of the economic system towards which modern society is tending; it may open a new chapter that does not begin with its own suicide.”14
Marx and Engels repeated that argument the next year in their preface to the second Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto.
In Russia we find, face-to-face with the rapidly flowering capitalist swindle and bourgeois property, just beginning to develop, more than half the land owned in common by the peasants. Now the question is: can the Russian obshchina, though greatly undermined, yet a form of primeval common ownership of land, pass directly to the higher form of Communist common ownership? Or, on the contrary, must it first pass through the same process of dissolution such as constitutes the historical evolution of the West?
The only answer to that possible today is this: If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development.15
Marx and Engels did not study Russian conditions out of academic curiosity. On the contrary, they believed that Russia, once the heartland of backwardness and reaction, had become “the vanguard of revolutionary action in Europe,” so understanding it was a political necessity. This understanding fueled their consistent support for radical populists who took action against the Tsarist regime, and caused them to distance themselves from people who were limited to analysis and commentary. Their approach was motivated, as Marx wrote in another context, by the conviction that “every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programs.”16
After a period of decline in the late 1860s and early 1870s, the radical populist movement was reborn, beginning in 1873, as “a chaotic mass pilgrimage of the intelligentsia to the people.… Young men and women, most of them former students, numbering about a thousand in all, carried socialist propaganda to all corners of the country.… This movement, remarkable in scope and youthful idealism, the true cradle of the Russian revolution, was distinguished—as is proper to a cradle—by extreme naiveté.… What they wanted was a complete revolution, without abridgements or intermediate stages.”
The largely spontaneous movement “to the people” totally failed. The peasants did not respond, and over 700 young populists were arrested and sentenced to long terms in prison or Siberian exile. Still, the experience “awakened a burning desire to pass from words to action.”17
On January 24, 1878, Zasulich, acting on her own, shot and seriously wounded the governor of St. Petersburg, who had ordered the brutal beating of a political prisoner for refusing to doff his hat. She then used her widely publicized trial to expose the government’s actions and policies. On March 31, the jury found her not guilty, triggering widespread celebrations in Russia and across western Europe. Although she neither intended nor participated in further actions, her deed inspired others: in the following months, some half-dozen government and police officials were assassinated.
Marx and Engels fully supported the new stage of populist struggle. In an article published just before Zasulich’s trial, Engels wrote: “The government agents are committing incredible atrocities. Against such wild animals one must defend oneself as one can, with powder and lead. Political assassination in Russia is the only means which men of intelligence, dignity and character possess to defend themselves against the agents of an unprecedented despotism.”
That September, he praised “our people in Russia” who “by their ruthless action, [had] put the fear of God into the Russian government.”18
In October 1879, the largest populist organization, Zemlya i Volya (Land and Freedom) split in two. The majority, calling themselves Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will), advocated “disorganizing” activity (terrorism) aimed at overthrowing the autocracy. The minority, whose members included Zasulich and fellow future Marxists Georgi Plekhanov and Pavel Axelrod, favored a focus on propaganda and education directed to the peasantry; their name, Cherny Peredel (Black or General Redistribution), referred to expropriation of the landlords’ estates. Marx ridiculed them for abstaining from the struggle, calling them “mere doctrinaires, confused anarchist socialists, [whose] influence upon the Russian ‘theatre of war’ is zero.”
Unlike the terrorists, who risk life and limb, these men—most of whom (but not all) left Russia of their own accord constitute the so-called Propaganda Party. (In order to disseminate propaganda in Russia—they remove to Geneva! What a quid pro quo!) These gentry are all of them opposed to politico-revolutionary action. Russia is to leap head-over-heels into the anarchist-communist-atheist millennium! Meanwhile they pave the way for that leap by tedious doctrinarism.19
On March 1, 1881, after several failed attempts, a member of Narodnaya Volya assassinated Tsar Alexander II. One member died in the attack, and another was arrested and tortured into revealing the names and locations of his comrades. Six central leaders were arrested, and their trial became a cause célèbre across Europe. In a letter to his daughter Jenny Longuet, Marx praised the defendants’ political seriousness:
Have you been following the course of the legal proceedings against the assassins in Petersburg? They are sterling people through and through, sans pose melodramatique [without melodramatic posturing], simple, matter-of-fact, heroic.… [They] are at pains to teach Europe that their modus operandi is a specifically Russian and historically inevitable mode of action which no more lends itself to moralizing—for or against—than does the earthquake in Chios.20
Many prominent figures, including the novelist Victor Hugo, protested the trial, which was conducted by hand-picked judges; however, the defendants were sentenced to death. Sophia Perovskaya, Andrei Zhelyabov, Nikolai Kibalchich, Nikolai Rysakov, and Timofei Mikhailov were publicly executed before a huge crowd on April 3, 1881. The execution of Gesia Gelman was delayed because she was pregnant, but she died in prison five days after her child was born.
The executions and the subsequent arrest of hundreds of Narodnaya Volya members and sympathizers effectively destroyed the radical populist movement. Marx and Engels befriended a few exiles who escaped to Western Europe and hoped for a revival, but the regime of Tsar Alexander III was more entrenched and repressive than its predecessor. The Russian left did not begin to recover until the 1890s.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is evident that Marx and Engels overestimated the strength of the revolutionary movement in Russia and underestimated the strength of the absolutist regime. Their writings on Russia must be read with that in mind.
However, it is also essential to recognize that their approach to the peasant communes and Russian politics was very different from that attributed to them by critics past and present, and that were sometimes defended by Marxists in the twentieth century.
Marx and Engels did not try to force fit the peasant communes into a predetermined historical model. As Teodor Shanin writes, Marx “refused to deduce social reality from his own books.” He and Engels did not have a one-size-fits-all “historico-philosophical theory,” that defined a particular path history must follow—in fact, the idea that history can take and has taken various paths runs through their work. Decades earlier, in The German Ideology, they had explicitly rejected theories in which “later history is made the goal of earlier history” as “speculatively distorted.”21
And, as Eric Hobsbawm pointed out in his introduction to Marx’s mid-1850s notes on pre-capitalist societies, his account of historical stages was analytical, not chronological. “The statement that the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and bourgeois formations are ‘progressive’ does not therefore imply any simple unilinear view of history, nor a simple view that all history is progress. It merely states that each of these systems is in crucial respects further removed from the primitive state of man.”22
Particularly important for Marx’s response to Mikhailovsky, the account of “primitive accumulation” in Capital said explicitly that “the history of this expropriation assumes different aspects in different countries, and runs through its various phases in different orders of succession and at different historical epochs. Only in England, which we therefore take as our example, has it the classic form.” The historical chapters of Capital described and explained merely what had happened in Western Europe—particularly England—not what ought to or must happen in all cases, regardless of context. To understand what was possible in Russia, it was necessary to “descend from pure theory to the Russian reality.”23
Recognizing that the situation in Russia raised questions he had not yet considered, Marx undertook detailed research, reading hundreds of books and reports and discussing the issues with Russians who visited London before drawing conclusions. Even then, he did not try to define an inevitable historical path—he concluded that the Russian communes might provide a direct path to socialism only if their decay was halted in time, if they received material support from the West, and if a successful revolution overthrew the Russian autocracy.
They did not assume that their social and political outlook qualified them to dictate tactics from afar. In 1885, Zasulich asked Engels for advice on the tactics Marxists should adopt in Russia. His reply displayed a political modesty that is all too rare in the left today:
To me the historic theory of Marx is the fundamental condition of all reasoned and consistent revolutionary tactics; to discover these tactics one has only to apply the theory to the economic and political conditions of the country in question. But to do this one must know these conditions; and so far as I am concerned I know too little about the actual situation in Russia to presume myself competent to judge the details of the tactics demanded by this situation at a given moment.24
During Narodnaya Volya’s attacks on Tsarism and Tsarists, Marx and Engels deferred to the tactical judgment of frontline revolutionaries, praising them for their insistence in court that their tactics were specific to the Russian situation. Their enthusiastic support for Narodnaya Volya between 1879 and 1881 goes against the conviction of many Marxists that assassination and terrorism are never appropriate. For Marx and Engels, however, an absolute prohibition of particular tactics was just as wrong as the assertion that certain tactics are always appropriate. In one paragraph, in which he praised Narodnaya Volya’s actions, Marx also condemned the German anarchist Johann Most for supporting terrorism. The difference was that the anarchist promoted tyrannicide as a universal liberatory panacea, while Narodnaya Volya insisted their tactics were specific to Russian conditions.25
Similarly, in an 1885 article, Engels condemned a terrorist bombing in London while defending Narodnaya Volya’s tactics in Russia.
The means of struggle employed by the Russian revolutionaries are dictated to them by necessity, by the actions of their opponents themselves. They must answer to their people and to history for the means they employ. But the gentlemen who are needlessly parodying this struggle in Western Europe in schoolboy fashion…who do not even direct their weapons against real enemies but against the public in general, these gentlemen are in no way successors or allies of the Russian revolutionaries, but rather their worst enemies.26
Critics past and present also routinely accuse Marx and Engels of economic determinism. As a recent article put it, their “fatal flaw” was believing that “because capitalism’s development was inexorable, there was little point in thinking about the actual transition from capitalism to socialism or the role the left might play in actively creating a better world.”27 Marx and Engels’s response to Russian developments in the 1870s and 1880s explodes that caricature. They viewed Russian capitalist development not as “inexorable,” but as open to a range of possibilities, and they actively supported efforts to transform Russian politics by overthrowing the Tsar.
Their approach, as Marx wrote in his critique of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, was not to invent universal models, but to study “the real, profane history of men in every century and to present these men as both the authors and the actors of their own drama.”28
And that made all the difference.