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The New International, November 1942

Leon Trotsky

Social Development of Russia

The Czarist State and Capitalism


From New International, Vol. VIII No. 10, November 1942, pp. 302–304.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Our revolution [1] has killed our “originality.” It has shown that history has created no special laws for us. And yet the revolution in Russia bears a quite peculiar character, the result of the peculiarities of our social and historical development.

It is not necessary to debate the metaphysical question of whether we are dealing, in the comparison of Russia with Western Europe, with a “qualitative” or a “quantitative” difference; but it is indubitable that the basic feature of Russian social development is its slowness and its primitiveness. Actually, the Russian state is not much younger than the European states. The commencement of Russian state life is put by the chronicles at the year 862, but the extremely slow tempo of economic development, conditioned by the unfavorable natural position of the country and the low density of the population, held up the process of social differentiation and stamped our whole history with the hallmark of the primitive.

It is hard to say what the life of the Russian state would have been had it developed in isolation, only under the influence of internal tendencies. Suffice it that this was not the case. Russian social life – the further it proceeded, the more this was so – was subjected to the continuous pressure of the more highly developed social and state relationships of Western Europe. Since state relations to other countries played an outstanding rôle under conditions of poorly-developed trade, so also did the social influence of Russia make itself felt primarily through the medium of military technique.

The Russian state, which rose on a primitive economic foundation, came into conflict with state organizations which had developed on a higher economic foundation. Here two possibilities were presented: either the Russian state succumbed in struggle with the latter, as the “Golden Horde” succumbed in the struggle against the Muscovite empire, or else it outstrips the development of its own economic conditions by absorbing, under pressure from abroad, a relatively large portion of the national resources. For the first solution, Russian economy already proved to be too far from primitive. The state was not destroyed, but began to grow by a terrific exertion of the economic forces of the nation.

Up to a certain degree, what has just been said applies of course also to every other European state. But the latter based themselves in their mutual struggles upon approximately equal economic foundations; hence their development did not have to sustain so mighty an external pressure.

The struggle of the Muscovite empire against the Crimean and Nogai Tatars called forth a tremendous exertion of forces; but obviously not greater than the century-long struggle of England against France. It was not the Tatars who compelled the land of the Russ to introduce firearms and to create standing Guard regiments; it was not the Tatars who thereafter caused the institution of cavalry and infantry regiments. It was the pressure of Lithuania, Poland and Sweden. In order to be able to exist alongside of better-equipped foes, the Russian state was compelled to create special trades and arts, to employ military experts, to provide counterfeiters for the state, powder manufacturers, textbooks on fortifications, to found naval schools and factories, to establish privy councillors. Whereas the military instructors and the privy councillors could be ordered from abroad, the material resources had to be assembled at any cost from the country itself.

The history of Russian state economy is an unbroken chain of essentially heroic efforts, aimed at creating the resources for the military establishment. The whole governmental apparatus was built up and constantly reconstructed for fiscal purposes. It was its task to seize every tiny bit of accumulated labor and monopolize it.

In its search for resources, the government recoiled from nothing: it imposed despotic and always disproportionately high taxes upon the peasants, taxes to which the population could not accustom itself; it introduced the joint responsibility of the community; by pleading and threatening, by exhortation and violence, it extorted the money of the merchants and the monasteries. The peasants fled in all directions, the merchants emigrated abroad, and the censuses of the seventeenth century show a constant decline of the population. Out of a budget of a million and a half in that century, some 85 per cent was expended for the army. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Peter was forced by the cruel reverses that he suffered to reorganize the infantry on a new model and to create a fleet. In the second half of the century the budget already reached the figure of sixteen to twenty millions, with from 60 to 70 per cent expended for the army and the fleet. These expenditures did not sink below 50 per cent even under Nicholas I. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Crimean War brought Czarism into conflict with the most powerful economic states of Europe--England and France – and the result was a complete reorganization of the army on the basis of universal military service. In the semi-emancipation of the peasants in 1861, the fiscal and military requirements of the state played a decisive rôle.

But the internal resources did not suffice. As early as Catherine II, the government found it possible to obtain foreign loans. The European stock exchange thenceforward became increasingly a principal source of the financial operations of Czarism. The accumulation of vast sums of capital on the Western European markets, which pushed down the rate of interest and sought favorable fields of investment, was thereafter to have a fateful influence upon the political development of Russia. The accelerated growth of the state organization now finds its expression not only in the excessive raising of indirect taxes, but also in the feverish increase of the state debt. In the years 1898 to 1908 it rose 19 per cent and at the end of this period it already reached the figure of nine billion rubles. The extent of the dependency of the state apparatus of absolutism upon Rothschild and Mendelsohn may be seen from the fact that interest payment on the debt now swallows something like a third of the net income of the state treasury. In the budget provisions for 1908, the expenditures for the army and the fleet, together with the interest on the public debt and the costs of liquidating the war amount to 1,018,000,000 rubles, that is, about 40.5 per cent of the total state budget.

Because the state, under the pressure of Western Europe, devoured a disproportionately large portion of the national production, it restricted the vital sources of the privileged classes and hampered their development, which was slow enough as it was. But not only that. It threw itself upon the meager means of existence of the cultivator, drove him away from the clump of earth he had hardly gotten used to living on, and in this way hampered the growth of the population and the development of the productive forces. Thus did the state protract the already slow differentiation of the estates by swallowing an excessive portion of the surplus product, and by appropriating a large portion of the indispensable product it destroyed the very productive forces on which it based itself.

At the same time, however, the state, in order to function, needed the hierarchical estates organization. That is why, while undermining the economic foundations of its growth, it endeavored at the same time to accelerate its development by state measures, and by employing its own power, to direct this process along lines beneficial to it.

In the interplay of the social forces of Russia, the diagonals moved far more in the direction of state power than was the case in Western European history. That exchange of services, at the expense of the working people, between the state and the upper social groups, expressed in the distribution of rights and duties, of burdens and privileges, brought the nobility and the clergy much fewer advantages in Russia than in the mediaeval feudal states of Western Europe. Nevertheless, it is a downright exaggeration, a complete destruction of all perspective, when Milyukov asserts in his history of Russian culture that whereas in the West it was the estates that created the states, with us it was the state power that created the estates in its own interest.

Estates cannot be produced by legislative or administrative means. Before a social group, with the aid of the state power, can crystallize out as an estate, it must already have been formed with all its social advantages. It cannot be manufactured according to an arbitrarily established hierarchical scale or according to a statute of the Legion of Honor.

What is indubitable is only the fact that in its relationship to the Russian privileged estates, Czarism always enjoyed an incomparably greater independence than did European absolutism which grew out of the estates-monarchy.

Absolutism attained the peak of its power when the bourgeoisie, which had raised itself on the shoulders of the third estate, was able to maintain itself as an equal counterweight to the feudal nobility. Such a situation, in which the ruling classes kept themselves politically balanced, assured the state organization the greatest independence. Louis XIV used to say: “L’éat, c’est moi! [”I am the state!”]. The absolute monarchy of Prussia appeared to Hegel as an aim in itself, as the realization of the idea of the state in general.

Czarism, in its endeavors to create a centralized apparatus of power, did not so much have to repress the claims of the privileged estates, as it had to battle against the barbarity, the poverty and the atomized state of the country, whose different parts lead an independent economic life. It was not the equilibrium of the economically ruling classes, as in the West, but their social weakness and political nullity that transformed bureaucratic absolutism into a self-sufficient organization. In this respect, Czarism appears as the intermediate form between European absolutism and Asiatic despotism – perhaps with a greater resemblance to the latter.

But while semi-Asiatic conditions made Czarism an autocratic organization, European technique and European capital provided this organization with all the resources of a European great power. This gave Czarism the possibility of interfering in all the political relationships of Europe, in which its fist began to play a decisive rôle. In 1815, Alexander I comes to Paris, restores the Bourbons to power and himself becomes the pillar of the “Holy Alliance.” In 1848, Nicholas I obtains a splendid loan for the suppression of the European revolution, and sends Russian soldiers to suppress the insurrectionary Hungarians. The European bourgeoisie hoped that the Russian armies would continue to serve it against the socialist proletariat, just as it had formerly served European despotism against the bourgeoisie.

But historical development struck out in another direction. Absolutism shattered itself against capitalism, which it had itself so zealously promoted.

In the pre-capitalist epoch, the influence of European economy upon Russian economy was necessarily limited. The natural character of Russian economy protected it from the influence of higher forms of production. That is also why the structure of our estates did not reach complete development. But when in Europe itself the capitalist relationships predominated, when mobile capital became the missionary of the new economy and absolutism became the assistant of European capitalism out of sheer self-preservation, the situation was completely changed.

Those “critical” socialists who have lost their understanding of the significance of the state power for the socialist revolution, can perceive even from the example of the unsystematic and barbaric activity of Russian autocracy the tremendous rôle that the state power can play on the purely economic field when it is working by and large in the direction of historical evolution.

By becoming the historical instrument of the capitalization of Russia’s economic relations, Czarism strengthened its own position primarily.

In the period when the bourgeois classes, now pushed to the foreground, began to feel the need of the juridical and political institutions of the West, Czarism, aided by European technique and European capital, became the greatest capitalist enterpriser, the banker, the proprietor of the railroads and of the whiskey shops. It based itself on a centralized bureaucratic apparatus which, while completely worthless for the regulation of the new relationships, was able to develop a colossal energy in the realm of merciless suppression. The vast expanse of the country was conquered by the telegraph system, which invested the activity of the administration with a certain security, uniformity and speed, while the railroads permitted it to concentrate military power from one point in the country to another in a short time. The governments of the West, before the revolution, knew virtually no railroad and no telegraph system. In addition, Russian absolutism had a tremendous army at its disposal, and if it did not meet the serious tests of the Russo-Japanese war, it nevertheless continued to be adequate for domestic use. Neither the government of old France nor the European governments of 1848 had such an enormous power at then: disposal.

The military and financial forces of Russian absolutism not only blinded the European stock exchanges, they also crushed the Russian liberal bourgeoisie, depriving it of all faith in the possibility of measuring its strength in open combat with that of the government. The power of the old régime seemed to exclude any possibility of a Russian revolution.

In reality, however, it was the contrary that happened. The more centralized a state and the more independent it is from the ruling classes, the sooner does it transform itself into an organization which imagines itself an aim in itself and stands above society. The more substantial the military-financial forces of such an organization, the longer and more successful may be its struggle for existence. A centralized state with a budget of two billions, a debt of eight billions and a standing army of a million, can still maintain itself for some time after it has ceased to satisfy the most elementary requirements of social development – not only the many-sided requirements of domestic administration but also those of external defense to which it owes originally its existence.

The administrative-military and financial power of absolutism, which enabled it to continue existing in contradiction to social development, therefore not only did not exclude the possibility of a revolution, as liberalism believed, but rather made the revolution the only possible way out. At the same time, this revolution was assured in advance of an all the more radical character, the deeper absolutism dug the gulf between itself and the masses of the people who were drawn into the new economic development.

Russian Marxism may be proud that it alone made dear the direction of the historical process at a time when liberalism pursued a utopian “practicalism” and the revolutionary “Narodniki” [Populists] lived on phantasmagoria and faith in miracles.


1. It is a question here of the revolution of 1905 and of the changes that it brought about in the life of the Russian state and society: of the formation of parties, the rise of Parliament, the inauguration of open political struggle, etc.

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