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Marx and the Russian Question

1882 Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto

It is important to note that Marx himself in the later years of his life devoted much attention to the Russian question, in particular to the peasant commune. In the Preface to the Russian edition of the Manifesto of the Communist Party of 1882 he and Engels noted the big strides that Russia had made in her advance to capitalism observing at the same time that the continued prevalence of the communal ownership of the land held the prospect of a direct transition to the communist form of ownership: 


The Communist Manifesto had as its object the proclamation of the inevitably impending dissolution of modern bourgeois property. But in Russia we find, face to face with the rapidly developing capitalist swindle and bourgeois landed property, just beginning to develop, more than half the land owned in common by the peasants. Now the question is: can the Russian obshchina, though greatly undermined, yet a form of the primeval common ownership of land, pass directly to the higher form of communist common ownership? Or on the contrary, must it first pass through the same process of dissolution as constitutes the historical evolution of the West?

The only answer to that possible today is this: If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development.


Marx studied the views of Russian Narodniks with intense interest, making up hundreds of pages of notes. Their ideas about the road to socialism through the obshchina allowed him and Engels to take a fresh look at developments outside Western Europe, in countries of ‘non-classical’ capitalism, and led them to pose the question of the possibility of a non-capitalist road to communism.   

Marx’s scholarly reputation was highly regarded by the leading Narodniks. The program of the ‘Peoples’ Will’, for example, contained references to the revolutionary activism of the proletariat and the possibility of enlisting workers’ help in the matter of the agitation and propaganda among the peasantry. Nevertheless, many intellectuals still felt that, since Marx’s revolutionary philosophy was based on a study of the industrial history and political economy of the advanced capitalist societies of Western Europe, his class-based ideas of ‘bourgeois-democratic’ and ‘proletarian-socialist’ revolution were inapplicable to backward, agrarian, autocratic Russia. At the turn of the century Narodnichestvo  was reinvigorated and received a new purpose and direction which reflected the general mood of the Russian peasantry. The demands for the transfer of all land to those who farmed it and the idea of co-operative socialism formed the core of the programs of neo-Narodnichestvo: both of its revolutionary wing, represented by the Party of Socialist-Revolutionaries and its moderate-reformist wing represented by the Party of Peoples’ Socialists. 

Peasant socialism, with its belief in the need for a non-capitalist road of development, was thus to remain a powerful force in the Russian political scene until, and beyond, 1917. In addition, it exerted a major influence on the evolution of the emerging Marxist movement. Yet despite all this, the Russian Socialist Revolution was to be accomplished not in the name of Herzen, but in  the name of Marx.

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