Leon Trotsky



Russia’s Social Development and Tsarism

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Our revolution [1] destroyed the myth of the “uniqueness” of Russia. It demonstrated that history does not have special laws for Russia. Yet at the same time the Russian revolution bore a character wholly peculiar to itself, a character which was the outcome of the special features of our entire social and historical development and which, in turn, opened entirely new historical perspectives before us.

There is no need to dwell on the metaphysical question of whether the difference between Russia and Western Europe is a “qualitative” or a “quantitative” one. But neither can there be any doubt that the principal distinguishing characteristics of Russia’s historical development are its slowness and its primitive nature. In point of fact, the Russian state is not all that much younger than the European states; the chronicle of Russia’s life as a state begins in the year 862. Yet the extremely slow rate of our economic development, determined by unfavorable natural conditions and a sparse population, has delayed the process of social crystallization and has stamped the whole of our history with the features of extreme backwardness.

It is hard to tell how the life of the Russian state would have developed if it had taken place in isolation, influenced by internal tendencies alone. Suffice it to say that this was not the case. Russia’s social existence was always under constant pressure from the more developed social and state relations of Western Europe, and as time went on this pressure became more and more powerful. Given the relatively weak development of international trade, a decisive role was played by military relations between states. First and foremost, the social influence of Europe found expression in the form of military technology.

The Russian state, having been formed on a primitive economic basis, was brought face to face with state organizations which had developed on a higher economic basis. Two possibilities presented themselves: the Russian state had either to fall in the struggle with those state organizations, as the Golden Horde had fallen in the struggle with Muscovite Tsardom, or it had to outpace the development of its own economic relations, swallowing up, under pressure from outside, a disproportionately large of the nation’s vital juices. The Russian national economy was no longer primitive enough to allow of the former solution. The state did not collapse; it began to grow, at the price of monstrous pressure upon the nation’s economic forces.

Up to a certain point all the above also applies, of course, to any other European state. The difference is that in their mutual struggle for existence those states could draw on economic bases of an approximately equal kind, so that their development as states was not subject to such powerful and economically intolerable outside pressures.

The struggle against the Crimean and Nogayan Tartars involved immense effort; but that effort was, of course, no greater than that involved in the Hundred Years’ War between France and England. It was not the Tartars who forced the Russians to introduce firearms and to form regular regiments of marksmen (streltsy); it was not the Tartars who, later, forced Russia to create a cavalry and an infantry. The pressure which brought this about came from Lithuania, Poland, and Sweden. In order to stand up to a better-armed enemy, the Russian state was compelled to create industry and technology at home; hire military specialists, official money-forgers, and gunpowder-makers; import textbooks on fortification techniques; set up naval schools; build factories; appoint “privy” and “active privy” councillors. And while it was possible to import military instructors and privy councillors from abroad, the material means had to be squeezed, at whatever cost, out of the country itself.

The history of Russia’s state economy is an unbroken chain of efforts – heroic efforts, in a certain sense – aimed at providing the military organization with the means necessary for its continuing existence. The entire government apparatus was built, and constantly rebuilt, in the interests of the treasury. Its function consisted in snatching every particle of the accumulated labor of the people and utilizing it for its own ends.

In its search for material means, the government balked at nothing. It imposed arbitrary taxes on the peasants, taxes which at all times were intolerably heavy and to which the population was quite unable to adapt itself. It introduced the system of mutual guarantees in the villages. By pleas and threats, admonitions, and extortion it took money from the merchants and the monasteries. The peasants ran away from the land; the merchants emigrated. Seventeenth-century censuses show that the population was constantly decreasing. At that time, the total state budget amounted to 1.5 million roubles, of which 85 per cent was spent on the armies. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Peter, owing to the cruel blows administered to him from abroad, was obliged to reorganize the infantry on a new pattern and to create a fleet. During the second half of the eighteenth century the budget already amounted to 16 to 20 million roubles, of which 60 to 70 per cent was spent on the army and navy. Nor did this figure fall below 50 per cent under Nicholas I. In the middle of the nineteenth century the Crimean War brought the Tsarist autocracy into armed conflict with the economically most powerful European states – England and France – as a result of which it became necessary to reorganize the army on the basis of universal conscription. Fiscal and military requirements played a decisive role in the semi-liberation of the peasants in 1861.

But the means available within the country were inadequate. As far back as under Catherine II the government was empowered to borrow money from abroad. Thenceforth the European stock exchange became increasingly the source from which Tsarism drew its finances. From that time on, the accumulation of vast amounts of capital on the West European money markets came to have a fatal effect on the progress of Russia’s political development. The intensified growth of the state organization now found expression not only in an excessive increase in indirect taxation, but also in a feverish growth of the national debt. During the ten years between 1898 and 1908 this rose to 19 per cent and by the end of the period it had reached 9 billion roubles. The extent of the autocracy’s dependence on the Rothschilds and the Mendelssohns is demonstrated by the fact that interest alone now absorbed approximately a third of the treasury’s net revenue. In the preliminary budget for 1908, expenditure on the army and navy, together with the interest on repayment of the national debt, and costs connected with the ending of the (Russo-Japanese) war amounted to 1,018,000,000 roubles, that is, 40.5 per cent of the entire state budget.

As a result of this pressure from Western Europe, the autocratic state absorbed a disproportionately large share of the surplus product, which is to say that it lived at the expense of the privileged classes then being formed and thus restrained their development which, in any case, was a slow one. But that was not all. The state seized the essential product of the agricultural worker, snatched from him the very sources of his livelihood, and, by so doing, drove him from the soil on which he had hardly had time to become securely settled; this in turn inhibited population growth and restricted the development of productive forces. Therefore, as the state absorbed a disproportionately large part of the surplus product, so it inhibited the process – at any rate, a slow one – of class or estate differentiation; and, as it seized a significant part of the basic product, it destroyed even those primitive productive bases which were its only support.

But in order to exist and rule, the state itself had need of a hierarchical organization of estates. And that is why, while undermining the economic foundations of the growth of such organization, it strove at the same time to force its development by state-imposed measures – while endeavoring, like all other states, to turn this process to its own advantage.

In the play of social forces, the pendulum swung much further in the direction of state power than was the case in the history of Western Europe. That exchange of services – at the expense of the working people – between the state and the higher social groups, which is expressed in the distribution of rights and obligations, services and privileges, occurred less in favor of the nobility and the clergy in Russia than had been the case in the medieval estate organizations of Western Europe. Nevertheless it is a terrible exaggeration and a distortion of all perspective to say, as Milyukov says in his history of Russian culture, that while in the West the estates created the states, in Russia state power created the estates in its own interest.

Estates cannot be created by legislative or administrative means. Before a particular social group, assisted by state power, can become a fully-fledged privileged estate, it must form itself economically with all its social privileges. You cannot create estates in accordance with a previously devised “table of ranks” or with the charter of the Légion d’honneur.

One thing is certain: in its relationship to the Russian privileged estates, Tsarism enjoyed an incomparably greater degree of independence than European absolutism which had grown out of estate monarchy.

Absolutism reached the apex of its power when the bourgeoisie, having hoisted itself on the shoulders of the third estate, became sufficiently strong to serve as an adequate counterweight to the forces of feudal society. The situation in which the privileged and owning classes, by fighting one another, balanced one another, ensured maximum independence for the state organization. Louis XIV was able to say, “L’état, c’est moi.” The absolute monarchy of Prussia appeared to Hegel as an end in itself, as the materialization of the idea of the state as such.

In its endeavor to create a centralized state apparatus, Tsarism was obliged not so much to oppose the claims of the privileged estates as to fight the barbarity, poverty, and general disjointedness of a country whose separate parts led wholly independent economic lives. It was not the equilibrium of the economically dominant classes, as in the West, but their weakness which made Russian bureaucratic autocracy a self-contained organization. In this respect Tsarism represents an intermediate form between European absolutism and Asian despotism, being, possibly, closer to the latter of these two.

But at a time when semi-Asiatic social conditions were transforming Tsarism into an autocratic organization, European technology and European capital were equipping that organization with all the means of a great European power. This enabled Tsarism to intervene in all the political relations of Europe, where its heavy fist came to play the role of a decisive factor. In 1815, Alexander I arrived in Paris, restored the Bourbons and himself became the incarnation of the idea of the Holy Alliance. In 1848, Nicholas I obtained an immense loan for the suppression of the European revolution and sent Russian soldiers against the rebellious Magyars. The European bourgeoisie hoped that the Tsar’s troops would, on future occasions, again serve as a weapon against the socialist proletariat, as they had previously served European despotism against the bourgeoisie itself.

But historical development took a different course. Absolutism was smashed by capitalism, which it had itself so zealously nurtured.

During the pre-capitalist epoch, the influence of Europe on the Russian economy was, of necessity, limited. The natural – that is to say, the self-contained – character of the Russian national economy protected it from the influence of higher forms of production. As we have already said, the structure of our estates was not fully developed even at the final stage. But when capitalist relations finally became predominant in Europe, when finance capital became the incarnation of the new economy, when absolutism, fighting for its life, became the accomplice of European capitalism, then the situation changed utterly.

Those “critical” socialists who have ceased to understand the significance of state power for a socialist revolution should at least study the example of the unsystematic and barbaric activity of the Russian autocracy so as to realize the immensely important role which state power can play in the purely economic sphere when, generally speaking, it is working in the same direction as historical development.

By turning itself into a historical instrument in the capitalizing of Russia’s economic relations, Tsarism was, first and foremost, shoring up its own position.

By the time that our developing bourgeois society began to feel a need for the political institutions of the West, the autocracy, aided by European technology and European capital, had already transformed itself into the largest capitalist entrepreneur, the largest banker, the monopoly owner of railways and of liquor retail shops. In this it was supported by the centralized bureaucratic apparatus, which was in no way suited for regulating the new relations, but was perfectly capable of applying systematic repression with considerable energy. The vast dimensions of the country were conquered by the telegraph, which gave the administration a sense of confidence, a certain homogeneity and great speed, while the railways enabled military forces to be transferred at short notice from one end of the country to another. The pre-revolutionary governments of Europe had practically no railways or telegraph at their disposal. The army at the disposal of absolutism is colossal, and although it proved inefficient in the serious trial of the Russo-Japanese war, it is still quite good enough for internal rule. Neither the government of France in the old days nor the European governments prior to 1848 had anything comparable to the Russian army of 1908-1909.

The financial and military power of absolutism oppressed and blinded not only the European bourgeoisie but also Russian liberalism, robbing it of any faith in the possibility of fighting absolutism by means of an open trial of force. It seemed as if the military and financial power of absolutism excluded every possibility of a revolution in Russia.

What actually took place was the exact opposite.

The more centralized a state is, and the more independent from the ruling classes, the more rapidly it is transformed into a self-contained organization placed above society. The greater the military and financial forces of such an organization, the more prolonged and more successful its struggle for existence. A centralized state with a budget of two billion roubles, a national debt of eight billion and with a million men under arms could have maintained itself for a long time after it had ceased to satisfy the most elementary needs of social development – including the need for military security, for the sake of which it had originally been formed.

Thus the administrative, military, and financial might of absolutism, which enabled it to continue existing despite and against social development, not only did not exclude the possibility of revolution – as the liberals thought – but, on the contrary, made revolution the only possible way of development; moreover, the fact that the growing power of absolutism was constantly widening the gulf between itself and the popular masses engaged in the new economic development guaranteed that the revolution would bear an extremely radical character.

Russian Marxism can be truly proud of the fact that it was alone in pointing out how things were likely to develop, and predicted the general forms of that development at a time when Russian liberalism was living on a diet of the most utopian of “realisms” and Russia’s revolutionary populists nourished themselves on fantasies and a belief in miracles. [2]


Author’s Notes

1. I am speaking of the revolution of 1905 and of the changes it introduced into Russia’s social and political life: the forming of parties, representation in the Duma, open political struggle, etc.

2. Even so reactionary a bureaucrat as Professor Mendeleyev is unable to deny this fact. Speaking of the development of industry, he remarks, “The socialists saw something in this, and even, up to a point, understood something of it, but they went astray because they clung too closely to their dogma, recommended violence, encouraged the animal instincts of the mob and strove for revolution and power.

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Last updated on: 13.11.2006