Marx and the Russian peasant commune

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Dec 27 08:04:27 MST 1999

Published by H-Russia at (December, 1999)

Esther Kingston-Mann.  _In Search of the True West. Culture,
Economics, and Problems of Russian Development_.  Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1999.  xiii + 301 pp.  Notes,
bibliography, and index.  $59.50 (cloth), ISBN 0-691-03187-8;
$27.95 (paper), ISBN 0-691-00433-1.

Reviewed for H-Russia by Susan P. McCaffray
<mccaffrays at>, Department of History, UNC Wilmington

Is Russia in the West?

What is the essence of Western economic thought, and how does it
relate to Russia's experience? Russians have asked this question
since the late eighteenth century and their quest is the subject
of Esther Kingston-Mann's latest book.  In addressing it, she
exposes the unwieldiness of reducing widely varied experience to
a single idea of "the West;" she also demonstrates that Russian
thinkers were not just observers of, but also participants in, a
long discussion about peasant agriculture and its place in
economic modernization.

What most interests Kingston-Mann is the peasant commune, and
she has unearthed a mountain of writing on this subject.  She
surveys the works of such well-known figures as August von
Haxthausen, Alexander Herzen, N. G. Chernyshevskii, A. I.
Chuprov and Donald MacKenzie Wallace.  Others she examines are
less well known, such as Emile de Laveleye, professor of
political economy at the University of Liege; 1860s dissident N.
Bervi; Marx's Russian translator N. F. Daniel'son; historian of
England, Paul Vinogradov; and the early twentieth-century
Danish-born official, C. A. Kofoed.

She locates the beginnings of the Russian debate on development
in the 1760s.  For Kingston-Mann this debate had two primary
characteristics.  First, it centered on the question of peasant
proprietorship; second, it was colored by a search for lessons
to be learned from West-European authorities.  Over the years,
this search led Russians to many thinkers who would not finally
wind up within the West's classical liberal canon.  She
summarizes English, French and German debates on the relative
merits of private property as opposed to communal land tenure.
Although there were important differences between the two, both
German and English ideas about agricultural modernization fit
the general rubric of "repressive modernization" (p. 34).
Russian modernizers drew from both the "light and shadow" of the
West.  "With a few notable exceptions,"  she writes, "the most
enthusiastic advocates of Western economic ideas and
agricultural methods were zealous defenders of surveillance and
coercion as economic stimuli and as guarantors of domestic
peace" (p. 60).

This early period is not Kingston-Mann's strongest.  While her
analysis of the late nineteenth-century thinkers rests on deep
familiarity with the collected works of her subjects, the works
of several early nineteenth-century figures she summarizes
(August von Schloezer, Ludwig von Jakob and N.S. Mordvinov,
misidentified as A.A. Mordvinov) do not appear in the
bibliography.  Not surprisingly, her reading of them is much
less nuanced and, in some cases, simply wrong.

The most significant case in point is her treatment of
Mordvinov, a state official and economic writer, cast here as an
an "Anglophile _par excellence_," an admirer of English
agriculture and private property, who saw no incompatibility
between serfdom and agricultural progress.  This picture is
incomplete and yields a misleading understanding of this key
figure in Russia's early development debate.  His biographer and
many of his own works attest that serfdom was, in many ways,
simply irrelevant to Mordvinov's interests, which focused not on
agriculture but on the development of manufactures and banks.[1]
In fact, Mordvinov eschewed universalism and did not espouse
borrowing blindly from the tiny maritime state whose history was
being elevated to the status of a model even as he wrote.

The point here is less to defend Mordvinov than to suggest that
Kingston-Mann may be conflating too much in her effort to build
an interpretive edifice.  Well-taken is her point that
anglophile defenders of property rights were not necessarily
proponents of peasant freedom (her references to American
slave-holders are appropriate here).  On the other hand, the
best examples of "repressive modernization," may have been
those, like A. A. Arakcheev and his emperor, who are less easily
cast either as consistently anglophile or as political

Kingston-Mann is much more in her element once her narrative
hits mid-century.  She is keen to make the point that in the
post-Emancipation debate on modernization, key analysts of the
Russian commune rejected the universalist claims of classical
political economy and challenged assumptions about the evils of
communal tenure.  They were drawn to the work of Wilhelm
Roscher, a founder of the school of historical economics, which
stressed the need for empirical and comparative studies and
challenged classical schemes that identified English history as
the model for all [2]

The Russian commune figured centrally in a European debate on
the core of economic theory.  "In the 1860s and 1870s," she
writes, "educated Russians were both observers and participants
in a high-stakes struggle whose outcome determined whether
historical economics or neoclassical liberalism would dominate
economics and economic policy-making in the modern world.
Although the 'historians' were defeated, their failure was not a
foregone conclusion" (p. 112).  Historical economics encouraged
mid-century Russians to undertake an intensive study of peasant
communal agriculture.  Best known among the Russian historical
economists is Alexander Chuprov, whose chief contribution as a
Moscow University professor was to launch an army of zemstvo
statisticians to gather empirical data on peasant households and

Chapter Six offers an illuminating reading of Russian efforts to
capture the essence of Marx.  Kingston-Mann's Marx is one
heavily engaged, in the later part of his life, with the
problems of peasant agriculture in general and with Russian
agriculture in particular.  Economist K. D.  Kavelin, in
particular, attracted Marx to the study of Russia's communes.
Kingston-Mann asserts that Marx's 1880s writings take seriously
the data of zemstvo statisticians.  Marx also engaged in a
dialogue with Russian Marxist N. F. Daniel'son, whose study,
_Outlines of the Post-Reform Economy_, deplored a view of
progress that assumed the destruction of communal tenure as a
precondition for the development either of capitalism or
industry, while asserting that, "we must graft scientific
agriculture and modern large-scale industry onto the commune,"
(p. 139).  Marx praised the first volume of this work when it
appeared in 1880 and encouraged Daniel'son to continue working
along these lines.  Kingston-Mann's Marx is an interesting
fellow, who was (alas, too late) inching away from universalism
and determinism under the influence of Russian writing on the

Despite the efforts of historical economists, by the turn of the
twentieth century tsarist officials and "orthodox" Marxists
alike had latched onto various tentacles of the triumphant
Western economic beast, at whose heart beat the conviction that
communal agriculture was an impediment to progress.
Kingston-Mann's juxtaposition of Stolypin and Lenin is not
unprecedented, but it is powerful.  "While the triumph of
inaccurate economic assessments which then went on to become the
basis for policies that disastrously failed may well testify to
the superior power of ideas," she writes, "this is not the kind
of triumph to which progressive-minded reformers or
revolutionaries were likely to lay claim," (p. 179).

The conclusions Kingston-Mann draws from her wide reading of
nineteenth-century European economists deserve attention.
Russians may be "outsiders within Western culture," but their
experience contributes to "a more inclusive picture of the
West," (p. 195).  Western experience includes that of communal
agriculturalists as well as that of capitalist farmers wedded to
individual tenure, and Western economic thought includes
"neo-classical, historical, and socialist perspectives" (p.
187).  In the second half of the nineteenth century, Russian
thinkers were frontline participants in the European debate
about economic development, who influenced the thinking of
others just as they were shaped by them.

Kingston-Mann does not put the implications of her study as
starkly as she might:  Russia did not "borrow" from the West,
because Russia was in the West, and the West was in Russia.
Many will reject this formulation in the present as they have in
the past, because their understanding of what the West, itself,
is, is so narrow that it is simply wrong.  The West is not only
"light," but also "shadow;"  and, sometimes, the light comes
from the eastern part of the West.

Only one other complaint comes to mind.  Kingston-Mann casts the
subject of her intense interest -- the question of land tenure
and peasant agriculture -- as the central question in the debate
on economic development.  However, at all points in the
nineteenth, and certainly in the twentieth, century,
industrialization and trade were questions important to an equal
number of thinkers and policy-makers.  It would have been
interesting to know at least a little bit about how agricultural
questions fit into what is indisputably a bigger picture.

Still, Kingston-Mann has wrestled a vast amount of political
economic literature into submission.  Much can be learned from
her skillful handling of this complex material.  Her book
deserves a wide reading, and if it gets it, scholarly meetings
in the Russian history field may be a little livelier for the
next few years.


[1].  Readers may also be surprised to see Mordvinov portrayed
as the architect of the notorious military colonies, for which
the tsar and Count A. A. Arakcheev, whose estate practices
Alexander admired, are usually held responsible (p. 70).  A
closer reading of the biography from which this conclusion is
drawn reveals that Mordvinov's preoccupation in 1810 was the
state budget and the military crisis, and that among several
ideas to reduce the size and expense of the army was both "a
variant of the military colonies which Alexander I had already
been pondering," and a proposal to replace recruitment
obligations with a recruitment tax that could be used to hire
foreign mercenaries.  See Helma Repczuk, "Russia's Would-be
Reformer: N.S. Mordvinov, 1754-1845," Ph.D. dissertation,
Columbia University, 1960, p. 262 and N. S. Mordvinov, "Vykup ot
rekrutsva," V. A. Bil'basov, ed., _Arkhiv Grafov Mordvinovikh_
(St. Petersburg, 1901-1903), vol. 4, pp. 487-491.

[2]. There is a substantial literature on the "German historical
school of economics," whose contours are not universally
accepted.  For a recent example, see Heath Pearson, "Was There
Really a German Historical School of Economics?" _History of
Political Economy_ Vol. 31, No. 3 (Fall, 1999): 547-562.

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Louis Proyect

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