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The New International, November 1934


A Letter on Russia by Karl Marx


From New International, Vol. I No. 4, November 1934, pp. 110–111.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Marx’ letter on Russia is of singular significance. Many socialist theoreticians have sought to contest the “legitimacy” of the Russian revolution on the basis of a pedantic construction placed up on the classic Marxian formula: “No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed; and new higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society.” Marx’ letter explicitly denies the “supra-historical” validity of this fundamental law of social evolution. That “leap over” bourgeois democracy and into proletarian democracy which Lenin spoke of in 1919, is of a piece with the thoughts expressed in Marx’ letter. The letter, apparently written in 1877, was addressed to Nikolai—on (N.F. Danielson), prominent spokesman of the Russian Populists (Narodniki), economist and publisher of the first Russian translation of Capital. The polemic was directed at N.K. Mikhailovsky, the leading theorist of Russian Populism, who remained a staunch anti-Marxist till his death in 1904. Very little known in Marxian circles, the letter was reproduced in the appendix to the French translation of Nikolai—on’s book on Russian economic development, published in 1902. The three explanatory paragraphs preceding the letter itself are from the pen of the Russian author. The letter is published here for the first time in English, translated from the French in which it was originally written-by Marx. – Ed.

IN THE second half of the period of 1870 to 1880, a rather lively polemic commenced in our literature on the subject of the ideas expounded by Marx in the first volume of Capital. With respect to one of these articles, notably the article of M. Zhukovsky, M. Mikhailovsky observed that in the last section of his work, Marx had in view only the historical outline of the first steps of the capitalist mode of production, but that he had given much more, namely, he had expounded a whole historico-philosophical theory.

This theory, adds M. Mikhailovsky, is of great interest for everybody; but for us Russians it is of still greater interest. For, according to M. Mikhailovsky, if one acknowledges completely the philosophical system of Marx, according to which every nation, in its historical path, must inevitably pass through the phase of capitalist development, then every one of the Russian disciples of Marx, to be consistent, would have to take an active part in the process which separates the means of production and of labor, expropriates the peasants, mutilates the human organism, threatens the future of the human race, etc, but on the other hand, the same disciple of Marx is obliged to regard as his ideal the harmony of labor and property, the ownership of the means of production and of land by the producers themselves.

This article furnished Marx with the occasion for writing a reply which was destined to be printed in the same review in which M. Mikhailovsky’s article had been published. But the reply was not sent, and remained among Marx’s papers where it was found after a translation of it had appeared in the Juridical Monitor. The reply was written in French, as follows:

* * *

I. – The author of the article, Karl Marx Before the Tribunal of Zhukovsky, is evidently a man of parts, and had he found in my exposition of primitive accumulation a single passage to support his conclusions, he would have cited it. Failing such a passage, he found himself compelled to seize upon suck an hors-d’oeuvre as a polemical sally against a Russian “belletriste” printed in the appendix of the first German edition of Capital. What do I reproach that writer for? For having discovered “Russian communism” not in Russia, but in the book by Haxthausen, counsellor of the Prussian government, and that in his hands the Russian commune only serves as an argument to prove that decaying old Europe must be regenerated by the victory of Panslavism. My appraisal of that writer may be right, it may be wrong, but in no case could it give the key to my views on the efforts “that the Russians are making to find for their fatherland a different path of development from that which western Europe has followed and is following”.

In the postscript to the second German edition of Capital, I speak of a “great Russian savant and critic” with the high consideration which he deserves. In a number of remarkable articles, he dealt with the question: must Russia begin by destroying, as the liberal economists would have it, the rural commune in order to pass over to the capitalist regime, or on the contrary, can she, without experiencing the tortures of this regime, appropriate to herself all its fruits while developing her own historical gifts. He pronounces himself in the spirit of the latter solution. And my honorable critic would have had at least as much right to infer from the consideration for this “great Russian” that I shared his views on this question, as to conclude from my polemic against the Russian “belletriste” and Panslavist that I rejected them.

Finally, as I do not like to leave “something to be guessed at”, I shall speak without idle circumlocution. In order to be able to judge the economic development of contemporary Russia on the basis of a thorough knowledge, I learned the Russian language, and then studied for many years the publications, official and otherwise, relating to this subject.

I arrived at this result: If Russia continues to proceed along the path followed up to 1861, she will lose the finest opportunity that history has ever offered to a people, only to succumb to all the vicissitudes of the capitalist regime.

II. – In the chapter on primitive accumulation, my sole aim is to trace the path by which the capitalist economic order in western Europe emerged out of the womb of the feudal economic order. Hence it follows the movement which divorced the producer from his means of production, transforming the former into a wage-earner (a proletarian, in the modern sense of the word) and the latter into capital. In this history, “every revolution marks an era which serves as a lever in the advancement of the capitalist class in the process of its formation. But the basis of the evolution is the expropriation of the tiller of the soil”. At the end of the chapter, I deal with the historical tendency of accumulation and I assert that its last word is the transformation of capitalist property into social property. I supply no proof of this at that point for the good reason that this assertion itself is nothing but the succinct summary of prolonged developments previously presented in the chapters on capitalist production.

Now, what application to Russia could my critic draw from my historical outline? Only this: if Russia tries to become a capitalist nation, in imitation of the nations of western Europe, and in recent years she has taken a great deal of pains in this respect, she will not succeed without first having transformed a good part of her peasants into proletarians; and after that, once brought into the lap of the capitalist regime, she will be subject to its inexorable laws, like other profane nations. That is all. But this is too much for my critic. He absolutely must needs metamorphose my outline of the genesis of capitalism in western Europe into a historico-philosophical theory of the general course, fatally imposed upon all peoples, regardless of the historical circumstances in which they find themselves placed, in order to arrive finally at that economic formation which insures with the greatest amount of productive power of social labor the most complete development of man. But I beg his pardon. He does me too much honor and too much shame at the same time. Let us take one example. In different passages of Capital, I have made allusion to the fate which overtook the plebeians of ancient Rome.

Originally, they were free peasants tilling, every man for himself, their own piece of land. In the course of Roman history, they were expropriated. The same movement which separated them from their means of production and of subsistence, implied not only the formation of large landed properties but also the formation of large monetary capitals. Thus, one fine day, there were on the one hand free men stripped of everything save their labor power, and on the other, for exploiting this labor, the holders of all acquired wealth. What happened? The Roman proletarian became not a wage-earning worker, but an indolent mob, more abject than the former “poor whites” in the southern lands of the United States; and by their side was unfolded not a capitalist but a slave mode of production. Hence, strikingly analogical events, occurring, however, in different historical environments, led to entirely dissimilar results.

By studying each of these evolutions separately, and then comparing them, one will easily find the key to these phenomena, but one will never succeed with the master-key of a historico-philosophical theory whose supreme virtue consists in being supra-historical.

Karl Marx

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