Georgi Plekhanov

A New Champion of Autocracy


From all we have said the reader will perhaps conclude that we do not recognize any merits on the part of our despotism. That would not be quite true. Russian despotism certainly has undeniable historical merits, the chief of which is that it has brought to Russia the seed of its own downfall. It is true that it was forced to do so by reason of its proximity to Western Europe, but all the same it did it, and as a result deserves our sincerest recognition.

The old Muscovite Russia was noted for her completely Asiatic character. This strikes one in the economic life of the country, in all its usages and the whole system of state administration. Muscovy was a kind of China in Europe instead of in Asia. Hence the essential distinction that whereas the real China did all she could to wall herself in from Europe, our Muscovite China tried by every means in her power from the time of Ivan the Terrible to open at least a small window on Europe. Peter succeeded in accomplishing this great task. He effected an enormous change which saved Russia from ossifying. But Tsar Peter could do no more than was within the power of a tsar. He introduced a permanent army with European equipment and Europeanized the system of state administration. In a word, to the Asiatic trunk of Muscovite Russia the “carpenter tsar” attached European arms. “On a social foundation which dated almost back to the eleventh century appeared a diplomacy, a permanent army, a bureaucratic hierarchy, industry satisfying luxurious tastes, schools, academies,” and the like, as Rambaud wonderfully describes this period in our history. The power of the new arms was of great service to Russia in her international relations but was disadvantageous to many aspects of domestic life. Having brought Russia, as Pushkin said, into “a prance” the great tsar ground the people down under the weight of taxation and carried despotism to the degree of might unknown until then. Every state institution which had in the least restrained the power of the tsar was abolished, every custom and tradition which had in the slightest way safeguarded his dignity was forgotten and immediately on Peter’s death those pranks of the “leibkampantsi” began owing to which the history of Russian tsardom for a long time was, as an Italian writer put it, a tragedy nel un lupanar. Peter’s “reform” pleased our tsars and tsaritsas chiefly because it strengthened tremendously the power of the autocracy. As for the “cultural work” which Peter began, they tried to escape it as far as was at all possible and it took shattering events to make the Russian monarchs remember Russian “culture.” Thus, the unfortunate outcome of the Crimean War forced Alexander II, as we have already said, to remember it. The Crimean pogrom showed what a terrible distance separated us from Western Europe. While we rested on the laurels we had gathered during the Napoleonic Wars, and placed all our hopes in the Asiatic patience of our soldiers and the valour of Russian bayonets, the foremost peoples in Europe managed to avail themselves of all the most up-to-date achievements in technology. Willy-nilly we had to shake ourselves up too. The state needed new funds, new sources of revenue. But for them to be found, serfdom, which was then greatly cramping our industry, had to be abolished. Alexander II did this and after February 19, 1861, it could be said that our despotism had done its utmost.

From the beginning of the sixties new social requirements began to mature in Russia and the autocracy could not satisfy them without ceasing to be an autocracy.

The fact was that the European arms were little by little exerting enormous influence on the trunk of our social organism. It started gradually to change from Asiatic into European. To maintain the institutions which Peter had introduced into Russia the need was, first, money, second, money, third, money. By the very fact of squeezing this money out of the people, the government was contributing to the development of commodity production in our country. Then, in order to maintain those same institutions, there had to be at least some kind of factory industry. Peter had laid the foundation of that industry in Russia. At the beginning, and perfectly in keeping with the character of its origin, this industry was perfectly subordinate and ancillary to the state. It was feudally bound, like every other social force in Russia, to serve the state. It maintained itself by the serf labour of peasants enlisted for work in the factories and works. Nevertheless, it did what it was meant to do, greatly helped in this by the same international relations. The success of Russian economic development from Peter until Alexander II is best seen from the fact that whereas Peter’s reforms required the serf dependence of the peasants to be intensified, those of Alexander II were inconceivable without its abolition. During the 28 years since February 19, 1861, Russian industry has so rapidly forged ahead that its relations to the state have altered quite substantially. At One time perfectly subordinate to the state, it now strives to subordinate the state to itself, to place it at its own service. In one of the petitions which they almost annually present to the government, the merchants of the Nizhny Novgorod Fair naively call the finance ministry the organ of the estate of trade and industry. Businessmen who formerly could not take a step without directions from the government now demand that the Government shall follow their directions. Those same Nizhny Novgorod merchants express the modest desire that measures capable of influencing the state of our industry should not be taken without being approved by representatives of their “estate.” Thus, as regards Russian economic development, absolutism has already said its piece. Far from being needed by our industry, state tutelage was even harmful to it. The time is not far off when our “estate of trade and industry, convinced by experience that timid remonstrations are useless, will be forced to remind tsarism in a sterner and severer tone that tempora mutantur et nos tnutamur in illis. [1]

Mr. Tikhomirov, who once exalted the “real” peasant as a menacing revolutionary force, now speaks of the peasant’s reactionary qualities as of something quite natural. It is precisely the peasant he has in view when he says that tens of millions among the population will not hear of anything except tsarism. Like the procurator in the comic poem The Speech of Zhelekhovsky [1*], he is now ready to exclaim in a voice full of emotion:

Christ be praised,
By the peasant we’ll be saved.

And, true enough, the peasant would save Mr. Tikhomirov and his “fellow-thinkers” if Mr. Tikhomirov and his present fellow-thinkers could save the peasant, who has been left to us by the good old times. But “no power whatever can save him now.”

The development of commodity and capitalist production is radically changing the life of Russia’s working population. Our Moscow and Petersburg despotism used to rely for support on the backwardness of the rural population which lived in economic conditions dating back, according to the expression of Rambaud quoted above, almost to the eleventh century. Capitalism has completely disrupted our ancient patriarchal rural relationships. G.I. Uspensky, who in his essays portrayed the “real” peasant with photographic exactness, admits that such a peasant is fated not to exist much longer on earth, that the old peasant order is breaking up and that in the countryside two new “estates” have been taking shape, namely the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The latter are leaving the countryside as they grow and are going to the town, to industrial centres, to the factories and works.

One does not heed to have studied in a seminary to know that the development of the proletariat revolutionizes social relationships. Everybody knows what kind of role the working class has had in the modern history of Europe. In modern European society, where the ruling classes present a horrifying picture of hypocrisy, falseness, perversion, deception, speculation on the Exchange and political corruption, the working class is the only buttress and the only hope of all sincere and thinking supporters of progress.

In our country the formation of this class is of still greater significance. With its appearance the very character of Russian culture is changing: our old Asiatic economic life disappearing, giving place to a new, European one. It is the working class in our country that is destined to finish the greatest work of Peter – to complete the Europeanization of Russia. But the working class will impart an entirely new character to this matter, on which depends the very existence of Russia as a civilized country. Begun in the past from above by the iron will of the most despotic of Russian despots, it will be completed from below, by the emancipation movement of the most revolutionary of all classes that history has ever known. Herzen notes in his Diary that in Russia there is properly speaking no people, but only a prostrate crowd and an executioner. In the working class a people in the European sense of the word is now being created in Russia. In it the working population of our country will for the first time rise in all their might and call their executioners to account. Then the hour of Russian autocracy's doom will strike.

Thus the inexorable course of historical development solves all those contradictions which in our country are characteristic of the position not of the revolutionary “intelligentsia” alone, but of any “intelligentsia” whatsoever. The Russian “intelligentsia” themselves are the fruit, quite unintentional, it is true, of Peter's transformation, i.e., of the instruction of youth in “schools and academies” which started with that transformation. More or less European in structure, these schools instilled into the young people taught in them many European concepts which were contradicted at every step by the Russian system and mainly by the whole practice of autocracy. It is therefore understandable that a section of educated Russians not satisfied with the majestic perspective of the hierarchy system, adopted an oppositional attitude to the government. Thus there arose in our country the stratum which it is customary to tall the intelligentsia. As long as this stratum existed on a social basis dating back almost to the eleventh century, it could “revolt and be infatuated with any utopias it pleased but it could change absolutely nothing in the actual situation. In the general course of Russian life this stratum was one of the “lost generation,” the whole of it was a kind of “intelligent superfluity,” as Herzen described some of its varieties. With the destruction of the old economic foundation of Russian social relationships, with the appearance of the working class in our country, everything is changing. By going among the workers, bringing them science, arousing the class consciousness of the proletarians, our revolutionaries from among the “intelligentsia” can become a powerful factor of social development – they who often enough despaired and lost heart, changed programme after programme without any result just as a hopelessly sick man resorts in vain to one treatment after another. It is among the proletariat that the Russian revolutionaries will find that support of the “people” which they have not had until recently. The strength of the working class will save the Russian revolution from exhaustion according to the expression now used with a smile of satisfaction by Mr. Tikhomirov and his “fellow-thinkers.” Indeed, “individual revolts” are incapable of destroying any political system whatsoever (and any movement of the “intelligentsia” alone is nothing hut a certain number of “individual revolts”), but those individual revolts will merge with the mass “revoltof the whole class as separate streams merge with a mighty river.

There is still time, it is not yet too late. Will our “intelligentsia” understand their position? Will They be capable of assuming the grateful role that history reserves for them?

Whether they understand or not, events will not wait for them. The absence of allies among the “intelligentsia”l not prevent our working class from becoming aware of its interests, understanding its tasks, bringing forward leaders from its own ranks and creating its own working-class intelligentsia. Such an intelligentsia will not betray its cause or abandon it to the mercy of fate.

It must again be noted, however, that in its fight against autocracy the working class will in all probability not be alone, although, of course, only the working class is capable of giving that fight the decisive turn. The very state of affairs will necessarily drive the whole of our bourgeoisie, i.e., our “society,” our world of trade and industry, our landlords, that petty-bourgeois nobility, and finally even the rural “third estate” to a struggle which is within their power.

The Kolupayevs and Razuvayevs [2*] are so absurd and conservative that at first sight they seem destined to be the future immovable foundation of “order.” In time they will indeed assume that role but they must necessarily first pass through their “period of stormy strivings.”

Our financial system is founded on the enslavement of the peasant to the state, which takes from him “everything you like to imagine, guided by the far from complicated consideration that “he will get it.” [3*] The all-suffering “he” long justified this assurance that was so flattering for him, but now even his amazing capacity for “getting things,” is nearing its ruin. As we already said, “he” is going through a process of differentiation, being transformed into a proletarian, on the one hand, and a kulak, on the other. As the most assiduous and vigilant chief cannot get much out of the light-headed proletarians, the burden of taxation weighing down on the village community is falling more and more on the wealthier members. It is true that the latter endeavour to repay themselves by appropriating the plots abandoned by the proletarians, but it is not difficult to understand that when it is a case of dues and taxes they cannot be as disinterested as the good old “he” was. In his simplicity “he” dreamed only of getting an economy of his own, and when he succeeded, as he did in the great majority of cases under the old system, he could be enslaved to the state by being deprived of every kind of income, both known and unknown to economists, with the exception of his meagre wage. The kulak cannot be content with such a wage. He must give it to his hired labourer and he must make sure of a decent profit for himself. But this is inconceivable without radical changes in the Russian financial system, changes which only the representatives of the whole country will be able to effect. And there is no need to be a prophet to know beforehand that in this respect there will be serious unpleasantness between the kulak and his “father the Tsar.”

Thus, Russian absolutism has been and still is preparing its own downfall. The time is not far off when absolutism will become absolutely impossible in Russia and then, of course, not many educated people in our country will be sorry for it. One can argue, and it is even useful to do so, over the means by which we should strive to achieve political freedom. But among honest and educated people there cannot be doubt as to whether we require that freedom or not. “We now have enough experience to know what our old absolutism is, so no more compromising, no more hesitation, but put your thumbs in its eyesockets and your knee on its chest!” [2]




1. It is generally thought in our country that provided the government introduces protectionist tariffs and is not miserly as regards subsidies for this or that stock company, our bourgeoisie no longer have any reason to be dissatisfied with it. This is an entirely erroneous view. Here, as in all other matters, good intentions are by no means sufficient: ability is also needed, and that is what our government has not got. I.S. Aksakov, who was inspired in this case by our Moscow merchants, said, for example, in his Rus (October 30, 1882) that all the efforts of our merchants and industrialists to find new foreign markets for the disposal of their commodities “are not only weakly supported by the Russian administration, but can even be said to be unceasingly paralyzed by the absence of a clearly conceived general trade policy in our government. He explained this absence by the perfectly correct consideration that “such is our bureaucratic system, in which all sections of administration are divided between departments to the detriment of the whole, and each department is very nearly a state within the state.” He gives the following arguments to prove this: “The finance ministry, for example, works out and establishes a whole system of encouragements and support for Russian industry and trade, including, among other things, tariffs for foreign goods imported into Russia, and the railway departments, which are administered by another ministry, that of communications, establishes a transport tariff which reduces to nil the tariff combinations of the finance ministry and protects foreign trade to the detriment of Russian trade. And a third ministry, that of the interior, which has under its authority natural, not artificial roads, neglects and allows to become unusable the important ancient trade route, and the foreign affairs ministry suddenly concludes some kind of treaty without careful consideration of Russian trade interests (allowing, for example, in the Berlin treaty, the obligation for Bulgaria to follow the Turkish tariff, which is the most unfavourable for Russia and the most favourable for England and Austria, etc., etc.). In the following issue of Rus, Aksakov stated that every safeguard of Russian industrial interests had to be obtained “by fighting, i.e., after long and obstinate insistence.” In the same issue, speaking of transit through the Caucasus, the editor of the Slavophile paper, who, we repeat, is here inspired by Moscow manufacturers, says that “our industrial world,” dissatisfied with the direction adopted in this question by Petersburg was “ashamed, embarrassed and grieved and had already lost all hope of energetic support for the Russian national (sic!) interests in official spheres in Petersburg.” Well, this seems clear!

2. Words of Lassalle in his speech Was nun? [4*]




1*. At the trial of the revolutionary Narodniks known as the "trial of the 193” (1877-1878) the State Prosecutor Zhelekhovsky made a speech which acquired ill repute for its dishonesty and lack of conviction and his obvious calumny of the accused. During the trial one of the accused wrote a poem parodying this speech. In 1883, it was published by Narodnaya Volya members in a hectographed booklet entitled Speech for the Prosecution by State Prosecutor Zhelekhovsky at the Trial of the 193, 1877-1878. (Krasny Arkhiv, 1929, Vol.3 (34), pp.228-30.)

2*. Kolupayevs and Razuvayevs – characters in several tales by Saltykov-Shchedrin (e.g. the Poshekhon Tales). Their names came to symbolize merchants, kulaks and other representatives of the rural bourgeoisie noted for their conservatism, vulgarity and tendency to brutal exploitation.

3*. He will get it (yon dostanet) – words of the merchant Razuvayev in Saltykov-Shchedrin’s Refuge of Mon Repos. Asked where he would get his profits from if the people become “utterly impoverished,” he answered: yon dosta-a-net (he will get it).

4*. What Now? – Lassalle’s second speech On the Essence of the Constitution delivered before the parliamentary elections in Prussia in 1862.


Last updated on 21.8.2003