Marx-Zasulich Correspondence February/March 1881
In order to examine in depth the questions raised in your letter of 16 February, I would have to enter into the relevant details and interrupt some urgent work. I do hope, however, that the brief account which I have the honour of sending you will suffice to clear up any misunderstanding about my so-called theory.
(1) In analysing the genesis of capitalist production, I said:
‘At the heart of the capitalist system is a complete separation of ... the producer from the means of production ... the expropriation of the agricultural producer is the basis of the whole process. Only in England has it been accomplished in a radical manner. ... But all the other countries of Western Europe are following the same course.’ (Capital, French edition, p. 315.)
The ‘historical inevitability’ of this course is therefore expressly restricted to the countries of Western Europe. [Next, the cause.] The reason for this restriction is indicated in the following passage from Ch. XXXII:
‘Private property, founded on personal labour ... which is personally earned ... is supplanted by capitalist private property, which rests on exploitation of the labour of others, on wage labour.’
In the Western case, then, one form of private property is transformed into another form of private property. In the case of the Russian peasants, on the contrary, their communal property would have to be transformed into private property. Whether or not one believes that such a transformation is inevitable, the reasons for and against have nothing to do with my analysis of the genesis of the capitalist system. At the very most, it might be inferred that, given the present condition of the great majority of Russian peasants, their conversion into small-landowners would merely be a prologue to their swift expropriation.
(II) The most serious argument used against the Russian commune comes down to the following:
If you go back to the origins of Western societies, you will everywhere find communal ownership of the land; with the progress of society, it everywhere gave way to private ownership; it cannot therefore escape the same fate in Russia alone.
I shall consider this line of reasoning only in so far as it [concerns Europe] is based upon European experiences. As regards the East Indies, for example, everyone except Sir H. Maine and his like is aware that the suppression of communal land ownership was nothing but an act of English vandalism which drove the indigenous population backward rather than forward.
Primitive communities are not all cut according to the same pattern. On the contrary, they form a series of social groups which, differing in both type and age, mark successive phases of evolution. One of these types, conventionally known as the agrarian commune (la commune agricole), also embraces the Russian commune. Its equivalent in the West is the very recent Germanic commune. This did not yet exist in the time of Julius Caesar, and no longer existed when the Germanic tribes came to conquer Italy, Gaul, Spain, etc. In the time of Julius Caesar, the cultivable land was already distributed on an annual basis among different groups, the gentes and the tribes, but not yet among the individual families of a commune; probably the land was also worked by groups, in common. In the Germanic lands themselves, this more archaic type of community changed through a natural development into the agrarian commune described by Tacitus. After then, however, it fell out of sight, disappearing in the midst of constant warfare and migration. Perhaps it died a violent death. But its natural vitality is proved by two indisputable facts. A few scattered examples of this model survived all the vicissitudes of the Middle Ages and may still be found today- for example, in my home region of Trier. More importantly, however, we find the clear imprint of this ‘agrarian commune’ so clearly traced on the new commune which emerged from it that Maurer was able to reconstruct the former while working to decipher the latter. The new commune – in .which cultivable land is privately owned by the producers, while the forests, pastures, waste ground, etc., still remain communal property was introduced by the Germans to all the countries they conquered. Thanks to certain features borrowed from its prototype, it became the only focus of popular life and liberty throughout the Middle Ages.
The ‘rural commune’ may also be found in Asia, among the Afghans, etc. But it everywhere appears as the most recent type – the last word, so to speak, in the archaic formation of societies. It was to emphasise this point that I went into some detail concerning the Germanic commune.
We must now consider the most characteristic features differentiating the ‘agrarian commune’ from the more archaic communities:
(1) All the other communities rest upon blood relations among their members. No one may join unless they are a natural or adopted relative. These communities have the structure of a genealogical tree. The ‘agrarian commune’ was the first social group of free men not bound together by blood ties.
(2) In the agrarian commune, the house and its complementary yard belong to the individual farmer. By contrast, communal housing and collective habitation were an economic base of the more primitive communities, long before the introduction of agricultural or pastoral life. To be sure, there are some agrarian commune in which the houses, though no longer sites of collective habitation, periodically change owners. Personal usufruct is thus combined with communal ownership. Such communes, however, still carry their birth-mark, being in a state of transition from a more archaic community to the agrarian commune proper.
(3) The cultivable land, inalienable and common property, is periodically divided among the members of the agrarian commune, so that each on his own behalf works the fields allocated to him and privately appropriates their fruits. In the earlier communities: work was clone in common, and after a portion had been set aside for reproduction, the common product was distributed in accordance with consumption needs.
Clearly, the dualism inherent in the constitution of the agrarian commune was able to endow it with a vigorous life. Emancipated from the strong yet narrow ties of natural kinship, the communal land ownership and resulting social relations provided a solid foundation; while at the same time, the house and yard as an individual family preserve, together with small-plot farming and private appropriation of its fruits, fostered individuality to an extent incompatible with [the structure] the framework of the more primitive communities.
It is no less evident, however, that this very dualism could eventually turn into the seeds of disintegration. Apart from all the malignant outside influences, the commune bore within its own breast the elements that were poisoning its life. As we have seen, private land ownership bad already crept into the commune in the shape of a house with its own country-yard that could become a strong-point for an attack upon communal land. But the key factor was fragmented labour as the source. of private appropriation. It gave rise to the accumulation of movable goods such as livestock, money, and sometimes even: slaves or serfs. Such movable property, not subject to communal control, open to individual trading in Which there was plenty of scope for trickery and chance, came to weigh ever more heavily upon the entire rural economy. ere was the dissolver of primitive economic and social equality. It introduced heterogeneous elements into the commune, provoking conflicts of interest and passion liable to erode communal owner ship first of the cultivable land, and then of the forests, pastures, waste ground, etc. Once converted into communal appendages of private property, these will also fall in the long run.
As [the most recent and] the latest phase in the [archaic] primitive formation of society, the agrarian commune [naturally represents the transition] is at the same time a phase in the transition to the secondary formation, and therefore in the transition from a society based on communal property to one based on private property. The secondary formation does, of course, include the series of societies which rest upon slavery and serfdom.
Does this mean, however, that the historical career of the agrarian commune is fated to end in this way? Not at all. Its innate dualism admits of an alternative: either its property element will gain the upper band over its collective element; or else the reverse will take place. Everything depends upon the historical context in which it is located.
Let us, for the moment, abstract from the evils bearing down upon the Russian commune and merely consider its evolutionary possibilities. It 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. It may gradually replace small-plot agriculture with a combined, machine assisted agriculture which the physical configuration of the Russian land invites. After normal conditions have been created for the commune in its present form, 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.
[It is confronted, however, by landed property, which bas in its clutches nearly half the land the best part, not to mention the state holdings, and the best part at that. 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 a purely economic point of view ... Russia would try in vain to break out of its impasse through English-style capitalist farming, against which all the social conditions of the country would rebel. The English themselves made similar attempts in the East Indies; they only managed to spoil indigenous agriculture and to swell the number and intensity of famines.]
The English themselves made such attempts in the East Indies; they only managed to spoil indigenous agriculture and to swell the number and intensity of famines.
But what of the anathema which strikes the commune – its isolation, the lack of connection between the lives of different communes, that localised microcosm which has so far denied it all historical initiative? It would vanish in the general upheaval of Russian society.
The Russian peasant’s familiarity with the artel would particularly facilitate the transition from fragmented to co-operative labour – a form which, to some extent [in the jointly owned meadows and a few ventures of general interest], he already applies in such communal activities as tossing and drying the hay. A wholly archaic peculiarity, which is the bugbear of modern agronomists, also points in this direction. If you go to any region in which the cultivable land exhibits a curious dismemberment, giving it the form of a chessboard composed of small fields, you will have no doubt that you are confronted with the domain of a dead agrarian commune. The members, without studying the theory of ground-rent, realised that the same amount of labour expended upon fields with a different natural fertility and location would produce different yields. In order to [secure the same economic benefits] equalise the chances for labour, they therefore divided the land into a number of areas according to natural and economic variations, and then subdivided these areas into as many plots as there were tillers. Finally, everyone received a patch of land in each area. It goes without saying that this arrangement, perpetuated by the Russian commune to this day, cuts across agronomic requirements [whether farming is on a collective or a private, individual basis]. Apart from other disadvantages, it compels a dispersion of strength and time. [But it has great advantages as the starting-point for collective farming. Extend the land on which the peasant works, and he will reign supreme.] Still, it does fava ur [as a starting-point] the transition to collective farming, however refractory to the objective it may appear at first sight. The small plot ....