Marx-Zasulich Correspondence February/March 1881
(1) In discussing the genesis of capitalist production, I said [that the secret is that there is at bottom ‘a complete separation of ... the producer from the means of production’ (p. 315, column l, French edition of Capital) and that ‘the expropriation of the agricultural producer is the basis of the whole process. Only in England has it been so far accomplished in a radical manner. ... But al/ the other countries of Western Europe are following the same course’ (loc. cit., column II).
Thus I expressly restricted the ‘historical inevitability’ of this process to the countries of Western Europe. Why did I do this? Please refer to the argument in Chapter XXXII;
‘The transformation of the individualised and scattered means of production into socially concentrated means of production, the transformation, therefore, of the dwarf-like property of the many into the giant property of the few, this terrible and arduously accomplished expropriation of the mass of the people forms the pre-history of capital. Private property, founded on personal labour ... is supplanted by capitalist private property, which rests on exploitation of the labour of others, on wage-labour’ (p. 340, column II).
In the last analysis, then, one form of private property is transformed into another form of private property; (the Western course). Since the Russian peasant lands have never been their private property, how could this tendency be applied to them?
(2) From a historical point of view, only one serious argument has been given for the inevitable dissolution of the Russian peasant commune: If we go far back, it is said, a more or less archaic type of communal property may be found everywhere in Western Europe. But with the progress of society it has everywhere disappeared. Why should it escape the same fate only in Russia?
My answer is that, thanks to the unique combination of circumstances in Russia, the rural commune, which is still established on a national scale, may gradually shake off its primitive characteristics and directly develop as an element of collective production on a national scale. Precisely because it is contemporaneous with capitalist production, the rural commune may appropriate all its positive achievements without undergoing its [terrible] frightful vicissitudes. Russia does not live in isolation from the modern world, and nor has it fallen prey, like the East Indies, to a conquering foreign power.
Should the Russian admirers of the capitalist system den y that such a development is theoretically possible, then I would ask them the following question. Did Russia have to undergo a long Western-style incubation of mechanical industry before it could make use of machinery, steamships, railways, etc.? Let them also explain how they managed to introduce, in the twinkling of an eye, that whole machinery of exchange (banks, credit companies, etc.) which was the work of centuries in the West.
If, at the time of the emancipation, the rural commune had been initially placed under conditions of normal prosperity, if, moreover, the huge public debt, mostly financed at the peasants’ expense, along with the enormous sums which the state (still at the peasants’ expense) provided for the ‘new pillars of society’, transformed into capitalists – if all these expenses had served for the further development of the rural commune, no one would be dreaming today of the ‘historical inevitability’ of the annihilation of the commune. Everyone would see the commune as the element in the regeneration of Russian society, and an element of superiority over countries still enslaved by the capitalist regime.
[The contemporaneity of capitalist production was not the only factor that could provide the Russian commune with the elements of development.]
Also favourable to the maintenance of the Russian commune (on the path of development) is the fact not only that it is contemporary with capitalist production [in the Western countries], but that it has survived the epoch when the social system stood intact. Today, it faces a social system which, both in Western Europe and the United States, is in conflict with science, with the popular masses, and with the very productive forces that it generates [in short, this social system has become the arena of flagrant antagonisms, conflicts and periodic disasters; it makes clear to the blindest observer that it is a transitory system of production, doomed to be eliminated as soc(iety) returns to... ]. In short, the rural commune finds it in a state of crisis that will end only when the social system is eliminated through the return of modern societies to the ‘archaic’ type of communal property. In the words of an American writer who, supported in his work by the Washington government, is not at all to be suspected of revolutionary tendencies, [’the higher plane'] ‘the new system’ to which modern society is tending ‘will be a revival, in a superior form, of an archaic social type.’ We should not, then, be too frightened by the word ‘archaic’.
But at least we should be thoroughly acquainted with all the historical twists and turns. We know nothing about them. In one way or another, this commune perished in the midst of never ending foreign and intestine warfare. It probably died a violent death when the Germanic tribes came to conquer Italy, Spain, Gaul, and so on. The commune of the archaic type had already ceased to exist. And yet, its natural vitality is proved by two facts. Scattered examples survived all the vicissitudes of the Middle Ages and have maintained themselves up to the present day- e.g. in my own home region of Trier. More importantly, however, it so stamped its own features on the commune that supplanted it (a commune in which arable land became private property, while the forests, pastures, waste ground, etc., remained communal property), that Maurer was able to reconstruct the archaic prototype while deciphering the commune [of more recent origin] of secondary formation. Thanks to the characteristic features inherited from the prototype, the new commune which the Germans introduced into every conquered region became the only focus of liberty and popular life throughout the Middle Ages.
We know nothing of the life of the [Germanic] [rural] [archaic] commune after Tacitus, nor how and when it actually disappeared. Thanks to Julius Caesar, however, we do at least know its point of departure. In Caesar’s time, the [arable] land was already distributed on an annual basis- not yet, however, among individual members of a commune, but among the gentes [Geschlechter] and tribes of the [various] Germanic confederations. The agricultural rural commune therefore emerged in Germania from a more archaic type; it was the product of spontaneous development rather than being imported ready-made from Asia. It may also be found in Asia- in the East Indies- always as the final term or last period of the archaic formation.
If I am [now] to assess the possible destinies [of the ‘rural commune'] from a purely theoretical point of view- that is, always supposing conditions of normal life – I must now refer to certain characteristics which differentiate the ‘agricultural commune’ from the more archaic type.
Firstly, the earlier primitive communities all rested on the natural kinship of their members. In breaking this strong yet narrow tie, the agricultural commune proved more capable of adapting and expanding, and of undergoing contact with strangers.
Secondly, within the commune, the house and its complementary yard were already the farmer’s private property, whereas the communal house was one of the material bases of previous communities, long before agriculture was even introduced.
Finally, although the arable land remained communal property, it was periodically divided among the members of the agricultural commune, so that each farmer tilled on his own behalf the various fields allocated to him and individually appropriated their fruits. In the more archaic communities, by contrast, production was a common activity, and only the final produce was distributed among individual members. Of course, this primitive type of collective or co-operative production stemmed from the weakness of the isolated individual, not from socialisation of the means of production.
It is easy to see that the dualism inherent in the ‘agricultural commune’ may give it a sturdy life: for communal property and all the resulting social relations provide it with a solid foundation, while the privately owned houses, fragmented tillage of the arable land and private appropriation of its fruits all permit a development of individuality incompatible with conditions in the more primitive communities. It is just as evident, however, that the very same dualism may eventually become a source of disintegration. Apart from the influence of a hostile environment, the mere accumulation over time of movable property, beginning with wealth in livestock and even extending to wealth in serfs, combines with the ever more prominent role played by movables in agriculture itself and with a host of other circumstances, inseparable from such accumulation, which would take me too far from the central theme. All these factors, then, serve to dissolve economic and social equality, generating within the commune itself a conflict of interests which leads, first, to the conversion of arable land into private property, and ultimately to the private appropriation of forests, pastures, waste ground, etc., already no more than communal appendages of private property. (dl Accordingly, the ‘agricultural commune’ every here presents itself as the most recent type of the archaic formation of societies; and the period of the agricultural commune appears in the historical course of Western Europe, both ancient and modern, as a period of transition from communal to private property, from the primary to the secondary formation. 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.... Both solutions are a priori possibilities, but each one naturally requires a completely different historical context.
(3) Coming now to the ‘agricultural commune’ in Russia, I shall leave aside for the moment all the evils which weigh upon it, and only consider the capacities for further development permitted by its constitutive form and its historical context.
Russia is the only European country in which the ‘agricultural commune’ has maintained itself on a national scale up to the present day. It is not, like the East Indies, the prey of a conquering foreign power. Nor does it live in isolation from the modern world. On the one hand, communal land ownership allows it directly and gradually to transform fragmented, individualist agriculture into collective agriculture [at the same time that the contemporaneity of capitalist production in the West, with which it has both material and intellectual links . . . ], and the Russian peasants already practise it in the jointly owned meadows; the physical configuration of the land makes it suitable for huge-scale mechanised cultivation; the peasant’s familiarity with the artel relationship (contrat d'arte) can help him to make the transition from augmented to co-operative labour; and, finally, Russian society, which has for so long lived at his expense, owes him the credits required for such a transition. [To be sure, the first step should be to create normal conditions for the commune on its present basis, for the peasant is above all hostile to any abrupt change.] On the other hand, the contemporaneity of Western [capitalist] production, which dominates the world market, enables Russia to build into the commune all the positive achievements of the capitalist system, without having to pass under its harsh tribute.
If the spokesmen of the ‘new pillars of society’ deny that it is theoretically possible for the modern rural commune to follow such a path, then they should tell us whether Russia, like the West, was forced to pass through a long incubation of mechanical industry before it could acquire machinery, steamships, railways, and so on. One might then ask them how they managed to introduce, in the twinkling of an eye, the whole machinery of exchange (banks, credit companies, etc.) which was the work of centuries [elsewhere] in the West.
One debilitating feature of the ‘agricultural commune’ in Russia is inimical to it in every way. This is its isolation, the lack of connection between the lives of different communes. It is not an immanent or universal characteristic of this type that the commune should appear as a localised microcosm. But wherever it does so appear, it leads to the formation of a more or less central despotism above the communes. The federation of North Russian republics proves that such isolation, which seems to have been originally imposed by the huge size of the country, was largely consolidated by Russia’s political changes of fortune after the Mongol invasion.
Today, it is an obstacle that could be removed with the utmost ease. All that is necessary is to replace the ‘volost’, a government institution, with a peasant assembly chosen by the communes themselves – an economic and administrative body serving their own interests.
Historically very favourable to the preservation of the ‘agricultural commune’ through its further development is the fact not only that it is contemporaneous with Western capitalist production [so that it] and therefore able to acquire its fruits without bowing to its modus operandi, but also that it has survived the epoch when the capitalist system stood intact. Today it finds that system, bath in Western Europe and the United States, in conflict with the working masses, with science, and with the very productive forces which it generates – in short, in a crisis that will end through its own elimination, through the return of modern societies to a higher form of an ‘archaic’ type of collective ownership and production.
It is understood that the commune would develop gradually, and that the first step would be to place it under normal conditions on its present basis.
[The historical situation of the Russian ‘rural commune’ is without parallel! Alone in Europe, it has preserved itself not as scattered debris (like the rare and curious miniatures of an archaic type that were recently to be found in the West), but as the more or less dominant form of popular life spread over a vast empire. While it has in common land ownership the natural basis of collective appropriation, its historical context – the contemporaneity of capitalist production – provides it with read y-made material conditions for huge-scale common labour. It is therefore able to incorporate the positive achievements of the capitalist system, without having to pass under its harsh tribute. The commune may gradually replace fragmented agriculture with large-scale, machine assisted agriculture particularly suited to the physical configuration of Russia. It may thus 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. [Indeed, the first thing to do would be to place it under normal conditions.] [But it is not enough to eliminate the dualism within the rural commune, which it could eliminate by ... ]
It is confronted, however, by landed property, which controls nearly half the land, and the best at that, not to mention the state holdings. In this respect, the preservation of the ‘rural commune’ through its further development merges with the general course of Russian society: it is, indeed, the price for its regeneration.
[Even from an] Even from a purely economic point of view, Russia can break out of its agricultural. ... ? ... .(e) through the evolution of its rural commune; it would try in vain to find a way out through [the introduction of) English-style capitalised farming, against which [the totality] all the rural conditions of the country would rebel.
[Thus, only a general uprising can break the isolation of the ‘rural commune’, the lack of connection between the lives of different communes, in short, its existence as a localised microcosm which denies it any the historical initiative.]
[Theoretically speaking, then, the Russian ‘rural commune’ may preserve its land – by developing its base of common land ownership, and by eliminating the principle of private property which it also implies. lt may become a 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; it may reap the fruits with which capitalist production has enriched humanity, without passing through the capitalist regime which, simply in terms of its possible duration, hardly counts in the life of society. But it is necessary to descend from pure theory to Russian reality.]
If we abstract from all the evils now weighing clown upon the Russian ‘rural commune’ and merely consider its constitutive form and historical context, it is immediately apparent that one of its fundamental characteristics, common land ownership, forms the natural basis of collective production and appropriation. Further more, the Russian peasant’s familiarity with the arte/ relationship would facilitate the transition from fragmented to collective labour, already practised to some extent in the jointly owned meadows for the drying of grass and other ventures of general interest. If in agriculture proper, however, collective labour is to supplant fragmented labour (the form of private appropriation), then two things are necessary: the economic need for such a transformation; and the material conditions for its realisation.
The economic need would make itself felt in the ‘rural commune’ as soon as it is placed under normal conditions – that is to say, as soon as its burdens are lifted and its land for cultivation expands to a normal size. The time has passed when Russian agriculture required no more than land and tillers of parcellised holdings armed with rather primitive instruments [and the fertility of the soil].... That time has passed all the more quickly in that the oppression of the farmer has infected and sterilised his fields. He now needs co-operative labour, organised on a large scale. Moreover, since the peasant does not have what is necessary to till his three desyatins, would he be any better off if he had ten times the number of desyatins?
But where is the peasant to find the tools, the fertiliser, the agronomic methods, etc.. – all the things required for collective labour? This is precisely where the Russian ‘rural commune’ is greatly superior to archaic communes of the same type. For, alone in Europe, it has maintained itself on a vast, nationwide basis. It is thus placed within a historical context in which the contemporaneity of capitalist production provides it with all the conditions for co-operative labour. lt is in a position to incorporate the positive achievements of the capitalist system, without having to pass under its harsh tribute. The physical configuration of the Russian land is eminently suited to machine-assisted agriculture, organised on a large scale and [in the hands] performed by co-operative labour. As for the initial expenses, both intellectual and material, Russian society owes them to the ‘rural commune’ at whose expense it has lived for so long and in which it must seek its ‘regenerative element’.
The best proof that such a development of the ‘rural commune’ corresponds to the historical trend of our epoch, is the fatal crisis undergone by capitalist production in those European and American countries where it reached its highest peak. The crisis will come to an end with the elimination of capitalist production and the return of modern society to a higher form of the most archaic type – collective production and appropriation.
(4) [In descending from theory to reality, no one can disguise the fact that the Russian commune now faces a conspiracy by powerful forces and interests. Not only has the state subjected it to ceaseless exploitation, it has also fostered, at the peasant’s expense, the domiciliation of a certain part of the capitalist system – stock exchange, bank, railways, trade....]
Life is the first requirement for development, and no one can hide from themselves that, here and now, the life of the ‘rural commune’ is in peril.
[You are perfectly aware that the very existence of the Russian commune is now threatened by a conspiracy of powerful interests. Overburdened by direct state exactions, fraudulently exploited by intruding capitalists, merchants, etc., and the landed ‘proprietors’, it is also being undermined by village usurers and the conflict of interests in its midst aroused by the situation in which it has been placed.
In order to expropriate the agricultural producers, it is not necessary to drive them from the land, as happened in England and elsewhere; nor to abolish communal property by some ukase. If you go and take from the peasants more than a certain proportion of the product of their agricultural labour, then not even your gendarmes and your army will enable you to tie them to their fields. In the last years of the Roman Empire some provincial decurions, not peasants but actual landowners, fled their homes, abandoned their land, and even sold themselves into bondage – all in order to be rid of a property that had become nothing more than an official pretext for exerting quite merciless pressure over them.
After the so-called emancipation of the peasantry, the state placed the Russian commune in abnormal economic conditions; and since that time, it has never ceased to weigh it clown with the social force concentrated in its hands. Exhausted by tax demands, the commune became a kind of inert matter easily exploited by traders, landowners and usurers. This oppression from without unleashed the conflict of interests already present at the heart of the commune, rapidly developing the seeds of its disintegration. But that is not all. [At the peasant’s expense, it grew as in a hothouse those excrescences of the capitalist system that can be most easily acclimatised (the stock exchange, speculation, banks, share companies, railways), writing off their deficits, advancing profits to their entrepreneurs, etc., etc.] At the peasant’s expense, the state [lent a hand to] grew in hothouse conditions certain branches of the Western capitalist system which, in no way developing the productive premises of agriculture, are the best suited to facilitate and precipitate the theft of its fruits by un productive middlemen. In this way, it helped to enrich a new capitalist vermin which is sucking the already depleted blood of the ‘rural commune’.
.... In short, the state [came forward as middleman] lent a hand in the precocious development of the technical and economic instruments best suited to facilitate and precipitate the exploitation of the farmer – Russia’s greatest productive force – and to enrich the ‘new pillars of society’.
(5) [One can see at a glance the combination of these hostile forces which are favouring and precipitating the exploitation of the farmers, Russia’s greatest productive force.]
[One can see at a glance that unless there is a powerful reaction, this combination of hostile forces will inevitably bring about the ruin of the commune through the simple pressure of events.]
Unless it is broken by a powerful reaction, this combination of destructive influences must naturally lead to the death of the rural commune.
It may be asked, however: why have all these interests (and I include the big government-protected industries) found an advantage in the present situation of the rural commune? Why should they knowingly conspire to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs? Precisely because they feel that ‘this present situation’ is no longer tenable, and that the present mode of exploiting it [is not tenable either] is therefore no longer in vogue. The land, infected by the farmer’s poverty, is already growing sterile. Good harvests [which favourable weather conditions sometimes draw from the land] are matched by periods of famine. Instead of exporting, Russia has to import grain. The average results of the last ten years reveal a level of agricultural production that is not only stagnant but actually declining. For the first time, Russia has to import grain instead of exporting it. And so, there is no longer any time to lose. And so, an end must be made to the situation. The more or less well-off minority of peasants must be formed into a rural middle class, and the majority simply converted into proletarians [into wage labourers]. – To this end, the spokesmen of the ‘new pillars of society’ denounce the very evils weighing upon the commune as so many natural symptoms of its decrepitude.
Since so many different interests, particularly the new ‘pillars of society’ constructed under Alexander Il’s benevolent empire, find an advantage in the present situation of the rural commune, why should they knowingly conspire to bring about its death? Why do their spokesmen denounce the evils weighing upon it as irrefutable proof of its natural decay? Wh y do they wish to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs? Quite simply, the economic facts, which it would take me tao long to analyse, have uncovered the secret that the present situation of the commune is no longer tenable, and that, through mere force of circumstances, the present mode of exploiting the popular masses will go out of fashion. Thus, something new is required; and this something new, insinuated in the most diverse forms, always comes clown to the abolition of communal property, the formation of the more or less well-off minority of peasants into a rural middle class, and the straight forward conversion of the majority into proletarians.
[One cannot disguise from oneself that] On the one hand the ‘rural commune’ is almost at its last gasp; on the other, a powerful conspiracy is waiting in the wings to finish it off. To save the Russian commune, there must be a Russian Revolution. For their part, those who hold the political and social power are doing their best to prepare the masses for such a catastrophe. While the commune is being bled and tortured, its lands sterilised and impoverished, the literary flunkeys of the ‘new pillars of society’ ironically refer to the evils heaped on the commune as if they were symptoms of spontaneous, indisputable decay, arguing that it is dying a natural death and that it would be an act of kindness to shorten its agony. At this level, it is a question no longer of a problem to be solved, but simply of an enemy to be beaten. Thus, it is no longer a theoretical problem; [it is a question to be solved, it is quite simply an enemy to be beaten.] To save the Russian commune, there must be a Russian Revolution. For their part, the Russian government and the ‘new pillars of society’ are doing their best to prepare the masses for such a catastrophe. If the revolution takes place in time, if it concentrates all its forces [if the intelligent part of Russian society] [if the Russian intelligentsia (l'intelligence russe) concentrates all the living forces of the country] to ensure the unfettered rise of the rural commune, the latter will soon develop as a regenerating element of Russian society and an element of superiority over the countries enslaved by the capitalist regime.