Rosa Luxemburg
The Accumulation of Capital

Section Two
Historical Exposition of the Problem
Third Round
Struve-Bulgakov-Tugan Baranovski v. Vorontsov-Nikolayon

Chapter 18
A New Version of the Problem

THE third controversy about capitalist accumulation takes place in an historical setting quite different from that of the two earlier ones. The time flow is the period from the beginning of the eighties to the middle of the nineties, the scene Russia. In Western Europe, capitalism had already attained maturity. The rose-coloured classical view of Smith and Ricardo in a budding bourgeois economy had long since vanished ... the self-interested optimism of the vulgarian Manchester doctrine of harmony had been silenced by the devastating impact of the world collapse in the seventies, and under the heavy blows of a violent class struggle that blazed up in all capitalist countries after the sixties. Even that harmony patched up with social reformism which had its hey-day after the early eighties, especially in Germany, soon ended in a hangover. The trial of twelve years’ special legislation against the Social Democratic Party had brought about bitter disillusionment, and ultimately destroyed all the veils of harmony, revealing the cruel capitalist contradictions in their naked reality. Since then, optimism had only been possible in the camp of the rising working class and its theorists. This was admittedly not optimism about a natural, or artificially established equilibrium of capitalist economy, or about the eternal duration of capitalism, but rather the conviction that capitalism, by mightily furthering the development of the productive forces, and in virtue of its inherent contradictions, would provide an excellent soil for the historical progress of society towards new economic and social forms. The negative, depressing tendency of the first stage of capitalism, at one time realised by Sismondi alone and still observed by Rodbertus as late as the forties and fifties, is compensated by a tendency towards elation: the hopeful and victorious striving of the workers for ascendancy in their trade-union movement and by political action.

Such was the setting in Western Europe. In the Russia of that time, however, the picture was different indeed. Here, the seventies and eighties represent in every respect a period of transition, a period of internal crises with all its agonies. Big industry only now staged its real entry, fostered by the period of high protective tariffs. In particular, the introduction of a tariff on gold at the Western frontier in 1877 was a special landmark in the absolutist government’s new policy of forcing the growth of capitalism. ‘Primitive accumulation’ of capital flourished splendidly in Russia, encouraged by all kinds of state subsidies, guarantees, premiums and government orders. It earned profits which would already seem legendary to the West. Yet the picture of internal conditions in contemporary Russia was anything but attractive and auspicious. On the plains, the decline and disintegration of rural economy under the pressure of exploitation by the Exchequer, and the monetary system caused terrible conditions, periodical famines and peasant risings. In the towns, again, the factory proletariat had not yet been consolidated, either socially or mentally, into a modern working class. For the greater part, it was still closely connected with agriculture, and remained semi-rural, particularly in the large industrial parts of Moscow-Vladimir, the most important centre of the Russian textile industry. Accordingly, primitive forms of exploitation were countered by primitive measures of defence. Not until the early eighties did the spontaneous factory revolts in the Moscow district with their smashing up of machines provide the impetus for the first rudiments of factory legislation in the Czarist Empire.

If the economic aspect of Russian public life showed at every step the harsh discords of a period of transition, there was a corresponding crisis in intellectual life. ‘Populism’, the indigenous, brand of Russian socialism, theoretically grounded in the peculiarities of the Russian agrarian constitution, was politically finished with the failure of the terrorist party of ‘Narodnaya Volya’, its extreme revolutionary exponent. The first writings of George Plekhanov, on the other hand, which were to pave the way in Russia for Marxist trains of thought, had only been published in 1883 and 1885, and for about a decade they seemed to have little influence during the eighties and up to the nineties the mental life of the Russian, and in particular of the socialist intelligentsia with theft tendency towards opposition, was dominated by a peculiar mixture of ‘indigenous’ ‘populist’ remnants and random elements of theoretical Marxism. The most remarkable feature of this mixture was scepticism as to the possibility of capitalist development in Russia.

At an early date, the Russian intelligentsia had been preoccupied with the question whether Russia should follow the example of Western Europe and embark on capitalist development. At first, they noticed only the bleak aspects of capitalism in the West, its disintegrating effects upon the traditional patriarchal forms of production and upon the prosperity and assured livelihood for the broad masses of the population. As against that, the Russian rural communal ownership in land, the famous obshchina, seemed to offer a short-cut to the blessed land of socialism, a lead direct to a higher social development of Russia, without the capitalist phase and its attendant misery as experienced in Western Europe. Would it be right to fling away this fortunate and exceptional position, this unique historical opportunity, and forcibly transplant capitalist production to Russia with the help of the state? Would it be right to destroy the system of rural holdings and production, and open the doors wide to proletarisation, to misery and insecurity of existence for the tolling masses?

The Russian intelligentsia was preoccupied with this fundamental problem ever since the Agrarian Reform, and even earlier, since Hertzen, and especially since Chernishevski. This was the wholly unique world view of ‘populism’ in a nutshell. An enormous literature was created in Russia by this intellectual tendency ranging from the avowedly reactionary doctrines of the Slavophiles to the revolutionary theory of the terrorist party. On the one hand, it encouraged the collection of vast material by separate inquiries into the economic forms of Russian life, into ‘national production’ and its singular aspects, into agriculture as practised by the peasant communes, into the domestic industries of the peasants, the artel, and also into the mental life of the peasants, the sects and similar phenomena. On the other hand, a peculiar type of belles lettres sprang up as the artistic reflection of the contradictory social conditions, the struggle between old and new ways which beset the mind at every step with difficult problems. Finally, in the seventies and eighties, a peculiarly stuffy philosophy of history sprang up from the same root and found its champions in Peter Lavrov, Nicolai Mikhailoysky, Professor Kareyev and V. Vorontsov. It was the ‘subjective method in sociology’ which declared ‘critical thought’ to be the decisive factor in social development, or which, more precisely, sought to make a down-at-heel intelligentsia the agent of historical progress.

Here we are interested only in one aspect of this wide field with its many ramifications, viz.: the struggle of opinions regarding the chances of capitalist development, and even then only in so far as these were based upon general reflections on the social conditions of the capitalist mode of reduction, since these latter were also to play a big part in the Russian controversial literature of the eighties and nineties.

The point at issue was to begin with Russian capitalism and its prospects, but this, of course, led further afield to the whole problem of capitalist development. The example and the experiences of the West were adduced as vital evidence in this debate.

One fact was of decisive importance for the theoretical content of the discussion that followed: not only was Marx’s analysis of capitalist production as laid down in the first volume of Capital already common property of educated Russia, but the second volume, too, with its analysis of the reproduction of capital as a whole had already been published in 1885. This gave a fundamentally new twist to the discussion. No more did the problem of crises obscure the real crux of the problem: for the first time, the argument centred purely in the reproduction of capital as a whole, in accumulation. Nor was the analysis bogged any longer by an aimless fumbling for the concepts of income and of individual and aggregate capital. Marx’s diagram of social reproduction had provided a firm foothold. Finally, the issue was no longer between laissez-faire and social reform, but between two varieties of socialism. The petty-bourgeois and somewhat muddled ‘populist’ brand of Russian socialists stood for scepticism regarding the possibility of capitalist development, much in the spirit of Sismondi and, in part, of Rodbertus, though they themselves frequently cited Marx as their authority. Optimism, on the other hand, was represented by the Marxist school in Russia. Thus the setting of the stage had been shifted completely. One of the two champions of the ‘populist’ movement, Vorontsov, known in Russia mainly under the nom de plume V.V. (his initials), was an odd customer. His economics were completely muddled, and as an expert on theory he cannot be taken seriously at all. The other, Nikolayon (Danielson), however, was a man of wide education, and thoroughly conversant with Marxism. He had edited the Russian translation of the first volume of Capital and was a personal friend of Marx and Engels, with both of whom he kept up a lively correspondence (published in the Russian language in 1908). Nevertheless it was Vorontsov who influenced public opinion among the Russian intelligentsia in the eighties, and Marxists in Russia had to fight him above all. As for our problem: the general prospects of capitalist development, a new generation of Russian Marxists, who had learned from the historical experience and knowledge of Western Europe, joined forces with George Plekhanov in opposition to the above-mentioned two representatives of scepticism in the nineties. They were amongst others Professor Kablukov, Professor Manuilov, Professor Issayev, Professor Skvortsov, Vladimir Ilyin,(1*) Peter v. Struve, Bulgakov, and Professor Tugan-Baranovski. In the further course of our investigation we shall, however, confine ourselves to the last three of these, since every one of them furnished a more or less finished critique of this theory on the point with which we are here concerned. This battle of wits, brilliant in parts, which kept the socialist intelligentsia spellbound in the nineties and was only brought to an end by the walkover of the Marxist school, officially inaugurated the infiltration into Russian thought of Marxism as an economic-historical theory. ‘Legalist’ Marxism at that time publicly took possession of the Universities, the Reviews and the economic book market in Russia – with all the disadvantages of such a position. Ten years later, when the revolutionary risings of the proletariat demonstrated in the streets the darker side of this optimism about capitalist development, none of this Pleïad of Marxist optimists, with but a single exception, was to be found in the camp of the proletariat.

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Note by MIA

(1*) Lenin.

Last updated on: 11.12.2008