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[The Question of the Abolition of Serfdom in Russia][45]

Karl Marx

The serious turn which the serf question now seems likely to take in Russia will be best understood from the extraordinary step the Czar, Alexander II, has been driven to, of summoning to St. Petersburg a sort of general representation of the nobles to discuss the abolition of serfdom. The labors of the "Chief Peasant Question Committee"[46] have proved little better than abortive, and only led to fierce quarrels among its own members, quarrels in which the Chairman of that Committee, the Grand Duke Constantine, sided with the old Russian party against the Czar. The Provincial Committees of nobles, in their turn, seem, for the greater part, to have embraced the opportunity afforded for the official discussion of the preparatory steps of emancipation, with the single view of baffling the measure. An abolitionist party certainly exists among the Russian nobles, but while it forms only a numerical minority, it is divided on the most important points. To declare against servitude, but to allow emancipation under such conditions only as would reduce it to a mere sham, appears the fashionable doctrine even with the liberal Russian nobility. In fact, this open resistance to, or lukewarm support of, emancipation appears natural enough on the part of the old slaveowners. Revenue falling off, diminution in the value of their landed property, and a serious encroachment on the political power they have been wont to wield, as so many minor autocrats revolving around the central autocrat, such are the immediate consequences they predict, and which they can hardly be expected to incur with eagerness. It has become impossible even now, in some provinces, to raise loans on the security of landed property, consequent upon the uncertainty prevailing as to the impending depreciation in the value of estates. A great part of the landed property in Russia is mortgaged to the State itself, and, say its owners, how shall we deal with our obligations to the Government? Many have private debts weighing upon their estates. A great number live on the dues paid to them by their serfs established in the towns as merchants, traders, handicraftsmen and operatives. Their incomes, of course, would vanish with the disappearance of serfdom. There are also small Boyars who possess a very limited number of serfs, but, proportionately, a still smaller area of land. If the serfs, as must be in case of emancipation, receive each a strip of ground, the proprietors will be beggared. For the great land-owners from their standpoint, it is considered almost a question of abdication. The serfs once liberated, what actual bar against Imperial power will remain at their disposal? And then, how with the taxes, which Russia is so much in need of, dependent on the actual value of land? How with the Crown peasants? All these points are mooted, and form so many strong positions behind which the friends of serfdom pitch their tents. It is a story as old as the history of nations. In fact, it is impossible to emancipate the oppressed class without injury to the class living upon its oppression, and without simultaneously discomposing the whole superstructure of the State reared on such a dismal social basis. When the time of change arrives, much enthusiasm is at first manifested; joyful felicitation upon mutual good will is dealt in, with great pomp of words as to the general love of progress, and so forth. But so soon as words are to be exchanged for deeds, some retire in fright at the ghosts raised, while most declare themselves ready to stand and fight for their real or imaginary interests. It is but with the support of revolution or war that the legitimate Governments of Europe have ever been able to suppress serfdom. The Prussian Government dared to think of emancipating the peasantry only when smarting under the iron yoke of Napoleon; and even then the settlement was such, that the question had again to be handled in 1848, and, although in a changed form, remains a question still to be settled in, a revolution to come[47]. In Austria, it was the revolution of 1848, and the Hungarian insurrection, but neither the legitimate government nor the good will of the ruling classes, that disposed of the question. In Russia, Alexander I and Nicholas, not from any motives of humanity, but from mere State reasons, attempted to effect a peaceful change in the state of the mass of the people[48], but both failed. It must, in fact, be added that, after the revolution of 1848-49, Nicholas turned his back on his own former schemes of emancipation, and became an anxious adept of conservatism. With Alexander II, it was hardly a question of choice whether or not to awaken the sleeping elements. The war, bequeathed to him by his father, had devolved immense sacrifices upon the Russian common people—sacrifices, the extent of which may be estimated from the simple fact that, during the epoch commencing in 1853 and ending in 1856, the paper money , of forced currency, was increased from three hundred and thirty-three millions to about seven hundred millions of roubles; all this increase of paper money representing, in fact, but, taxes anticipated. Alexander II only followed the example set by Alexander I during the Napoleonic war, in cheering the peasantry with promises of emancipation. The war, moreover, led to a humiliation and a de-feat, in the eyes at least of the serfs, who cannot be supposed to be adepts in the mysteries of diplomacy. To initiate his new reign by apparent defeat and humiliation, both of them to be followed by an open breach of the promises held out in war-time to the rustics, was an operation too dangerous even for a Czar to venture upon.

It appears doubtful whether Nicholas himself, with or without the Oriental war, would have been able any longer to shift off the question. Alexander II, at all events, was not so; but he supposed, nor was the supposition quite gratuitous, that the nobles, all of whom were accustomed to submit, would not recoil at his orders, and ' would even consider it a mark of honor to be allowed, through the instrumentality of their several committees, to act a part in this great drama. These calculations, however, have proved false. On the other hand, the peasantry, with exaggerated notions even of what the Czar intended doing for them, have grown impatient at the slow ways of their seigneurs. The incendiary fires breaking out in several provinces are signals of distress not to be misunderstood. It is further known that in Great Russia, as well as in the provinces formerly belonging to Poland, riots have taken place, accompanied by terrible scenes, in consequence of which the nobility have emigrated from the country to the towns, where, under the protection of walls and garrisons, they can bid defiance to their incensed slaves. Under these circumstances, Alexander II has seen proper in this state of things to convoke something like an assembly of notables. What if his convocation should form a new starting-point in Russian history? What if the nobles should, insist upon their own political emancipation as a condition preliminary to any concession to be made to the Czar with respect to the emancipation of their serfs?

Written on October 1, 1858
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5458, October 19, 1858 as a leading article


[45] This article is entered in Marx's Notebook for 1858 as "October 1. Friday. Russian serfs".

[46] The Chief Peasant Question Committee is the name given in January 1858 to the Secret Committee "for discussing measures to arrange the life of the landowners' peasants" which began its sittings on January 3, 1857 with Alexander II as chairman. The aim of the Chief Committee was to consider "the decisions and proposals concerning serfdom". The Grand Duke Constantine was among its members.

In November 1857 a rescript was issued inviting each gubernia to form landowners' committees for the purpose of drafting the conditions for the abolition of serfdom. Such committees were set up in all gubernias in the course of 1858. Their composition varied, the majority consisting of big serfowners and the minority, of liberal landowners.

[47] By an 1807 edict the Prussian Government granted personal freedom to the peasants, abolishing their hereditary subjection (Erbuntertänigkeit) to the landowners. However, all feudal obligations of the peasants connected with the use of landowners' lands remained in force. The conditions for the redemption of these obligations were defined by a number of successive edicts. In 1808 the landowners succeeded in acquiring the right to appropriate peasant plots. The "regulating" edict of 1811 contained extremely harsh conditions for redemption. It concerned only those peasants who had hereditary or lifelong rights to their plots of land. The masses of leaseholders continued to be in bondage. It was not until 1850 that defeudalisation was completed.

[48] The reference is to Alexander I's edict "On the Freeing of His Peasants by the Landowner on Conditions Based on Mutual Consent" adopted on February 20, 1803, and to Nicholas I's edicts of 1842, 1844, 1846 and 1847.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.51-53), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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