Marx-Zasulich Correspondence February/March 1881
I. I have shown in Capital that the [transformation] metamorphosis of feudal production into capitalist production had its starting-point in the expropriation of the producers; and, in particular, that ‘the expropriation of the agricultural producer, of the peasant, from the soil is the basis of the whole process’ (p. 315 of the French edition). I continue: ‘Only in England has it (the expropriation of the agricultural producer) been accomplished in a radical manner. ... All the other countries of Western Europe are following the same course’ (loc. cit.).
Thus [in writing these lines] I expressly restricted [the development in question] this ‘historical inevitability’ to ‘the. countries of Western Europe’. So that there should not be the slightest doubt about my thinking, I say on p. 341: ‘Private property, as the antithesis to social, collective property, exists only where ... the external conditions of labour belong to private individuals. But according to whether these private individuals are workers or nonworkers, private property has a different character.’
Thus the process I [described] analysed, substituted a form of private, fragmented property of the workers- capitalist property(a) of a tiny minority (loc. cit., p. 342), substituted one kind of property for another. How [ would it apply] could it apply to Russia, where the land is not and never has been the private property of the agricultural producer? [In any case, those who believe that the dissolution of communal property is a historical necessity in Russia cannot, at any event, prove such a necessity from my account of the inevitable course of things in Western Europe. On the contrary, they would have to provide new arguments quite independent of the course I described. The only thing they can learn from me is this:] Thus, the only conclusion they would be justified in drawing from the course of things in the West is the following: If capitalist production is to be established in Russia, the first step must be to abolish communal property and expropriate the peasants, that is, the great mass of the people. That is anyway the wish of the Russian liberals [who wish to naturalise capitalist production in their own country and, quite consistently, to transform the great mass of peasants into simple wage-labourers], but does their wish prove more than Catherine II’s wish [to graft] to implant the Western medieval craft system in Russian soil?
[Since the Russian peasants’ land is their common property and has never been their private property.... ]
[In Russia, where the land is not and never has been the peasant’s ‘private property’, the transformation metamorphosis of this of such private property into capitalist property has no sense is impossible is therefore out of the question. The only conclusion one might draw is that .... All that can be concluded from the Western data .... If one wishes to draw some indication lesson from the (Western) data .... ]
[The most simple-minded observer could not deny that these are two quite distinct cases. In any case, the Western process.... ]
Thus [the process I have analysed] the expropriation of the agricultural producers in the West served ‘to transform the fragmented private property of workers’ into the concentrated private property of capitalists. But it was always the substitution of one form of private property for another form of private property. [How, then, could this same process apply to the land in Russia to the Russian agricultural producers whose land is not and never has ... whose property in land always remained ‘communal’ and has never been ‘private’. The same historical process which [I analysed] such as it was realised in the West.... ] In Russia, on the contrary, it would be a matter of substituting capitalist property for the communist property [of the tillers of the land – a process that would evidently be quite ... ].
Yes indeed! If capitalist production is to establish its sway in Russia, then the great majority of peasants – that is, of the Russian people – will have to be transformed into wage-labourers, and hence be expropriated through the prior abolition of their communist property. But in any event, the Western precedent would prove nothing at all [about the ‘historical inevitability’ of this process].
II. The Russian ‘Marxists’ of whom you speak are completely unknown to me. As far as I am aware, the Russians with whom I do have personal links hold altogether opposite views.
III. From a historical point of view, the only serious argument [that may be invoked] in favour of the inevitable dissolution of communal property in Russia is as follows: Communal property existed everywhere in Western Europe, and it everywhere disappeared with the progress of society; [why should its fate be different in Russia?] how, then, could it escape the same fate in Russia?
First of all, in Western Europe, the death of communal property [and the emergence] and the birth of capitalist production are separated by a [centuries-long] huge interval which covers a whole series of successive economic revolutions and evolutions, [The death of communal property did not give birth to capitalist production,] of which capitalist production is but [the last] the most recent. On the one hand it has marvellously developed the social productive forces, but on the other it has betrayed [its transitory character] its own incompatibility with the very forces it generates. Its history is no longer anything more than one of antagonisms, crises, conflicts and disasters. Lastly, it has unveiled its purely transitory character to all except those who have an interest in remaining blind. The peoples among which it reached its highest peak in Europe and [the United States of] America seek only to break its chains by replacing capitalist with co-operative production, and capitalist property with a higher form of the archaic type of property, that is, [collective] communist property.
If Russia were isolated in the world, it would have to develop on its own account the economic conquests which Western Europe only acquired through a long series of evolutions from its primitive communities to the present situation. There would then be no doubt whatsoever, at least in my mind, that Russia’s communities are fated to perish with the development of Russian society. However, the situation of the Russian commune is absolutely different from that of the primitive communities in the West [in Western Europe]. Russia is the only European country in which communal property has maintained itself on a vast, nationwide scale. But at the same time, Russia exists in a modern historical context: it is contemporaneous with a higher culture, and it is linked to a world market in which capitalist production is predominant.
[It is therefore capitalist production which enables it to achieve results without having to pass through its. ... ]
Thus, in appropriating the positive results of this mode of production, it is able to develop and transform the still archaic form of its rural commune, instead of destroying it. (I would remark in passing that the form of communist property in Russia is the most modern form of the archaic type which has itself gone through a whole series of evolutionary changes.)
If the admirers of the capitalist system in Russia deny that such a combination is possible, let them prove that Russia had to undergo an incubation period of mechanical production in order to make use of machinery! Let them explain to me how they managed, in just a few days as it were, to introduce the machinery of exchange (banks, credit companies, etc.) which was the work of centuries in the West.
[Although the capitalist system is past its prime in the West, approaching the time when it will be no more than a social regime a regressive form an ‘archaic’ formation, its Russian admirers are.... ]
IV. The archaic or primary formation of our globe itself contains a series of layers from various ages, the one superimposed on the other. Similarly, the archaic formation of society exhibits a series of different types [ which together form an ascending series], which mark a progression of epochs. The Russian rural commune belongs to the most recent type in this chain. Already, the agricultural producer privately owns the house in which he lives, together with its complementary garden. This is the first element unknown to older types which dissolves the archaic form [and which may serve as a transition from the archaic form to... ]. On the other hand, these older types all rest upon natural kinship relations between members of the commune, whereas the type to which the Russian commune belongs is emancipated from that narrow bond. For this very reason, it is therefore capable of broader development. The isolation of the rural communes, the lack of connection between the lives of different communes- this localised microcosm [which would have constituted the natural basis of a central despotism] does not everywhere appear as an immanent characteristic of the primitive type. But wherever it is found, it leads to the formation of a central despotism above the communes. It seems to me that in Russia [the isolated life of the rural communes will disappear] this isolation, originally imposed by the country’s huge expanse, may easily be overcome once the government fetters have been removed.
This brings me to the heart of the matter. One cannot disguise from oneself that the archaic type, to which the Russian rural commune belongs, conceals an inner dualism which, given certain historical conditions, may bring on its ruin [its dissolution]. There is common land ownership, but [on the other hand, in practice the work of cultivation or production is clone on small peasant plots] each peasant cultivates and works [his plot, reaps the fruits of his field] his field on his own account, like the small Western peasant.
Communal property and small-plot cultivation: this combination [which used to be a (fertilising) element of progress, the development of farming), useful in more distant times, becomes dangerous in our own epoch. On the one hand movable property, playing an ever more important role in agriculture itself, gradually differentiates the commune members in terms of wealth and gives rise to a conflict of interests, above all under state fiscal pressure; on the other hand, the economic superiority of communal property – as the basis of co-operative and combined labour- is lost, it should not be forgotten, however, that the Russian peasants already practise the collective mode in the cultivation of their joint meadows (prairies indivises); that their familiarity with the artel relationship could greatly facilitate their transition from small-plot to collective farming; that the physical configuration of the Russian land makes it suitable for large-scale and combined mechanical farming [with the aid of machines]; and finally, that Russian society, having for so long lived at the expense of the rural commune, owes it the initial funds required for such a change. What is involved, of course, is only a gradual change that would begin by creating normal conditions for the commune on its present basis.
V. Leaving aside all questions of a more or less theoretical nature, I do not have to tell you that the very existence of the Russian commune is now threatened by a conspiracy of powerful interests. A certain type of capitalism, fostered by the state at the peasants’ expense, has risen up against the commune and found an interest in stifling it. The landowners, tao, have an interest in forming the more or less well-off peasants into an agricultural middle class, and in converting the poor farmers- that is, the mass- into mere wage labourers- that is to say, cheap labour. How can a commune resist, pounded as it is by state exactions, plundered by trade, exploited by landowners, and undermined from within by usury!
What threatens the life of the Russian commune is neither a historical inevitability nor a theory; it is state oppression, and exploitation by capitalist intruders whom the state has made powerful at the peasants’ expense.