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Late Marx and the Russian road: Marx and the "Peripheries of Capitalism."

This varied collection of primary source materials and interpretive essays provides fresh perspective on Marx's views about the possiblities for a socialist transformation in Russia and on his relations with the Russian revolutionaries of his day, particularly the populists in the People's Will (Narodnaya volya) and Black Repartition (Chernyi peredel) organizations. Included in the anthology are previously untranslated texts by Marx and by the Russian populists who influenced his thinking on Russia, as well as analytical chapters by Teodor Shanin, Haruki Wada, and Derek Sayer and Philip Corrigan. Beyond its relevance to the question of Russia, the "case presented" in Late Marx and the Russian Road is a forceful intervention in the larger debates over Marx's conceptions of historical process and the nature of contemporary peripheral capitalism. Taken as a whole, this volume should lay to rest whatever doubts may remain regarding Marx's opposition to unilineal and teleological notions of progress.

Certainly the most important institution in the late nineteenth-century russian countryside was the village commune (mir or obshcina). With the abolition of serfdom in 1861, emancipated peasants worked lands which belonged to the commune and which were periodically redistributed according to various kinds of egalitarian principles, such as the number of adult males or total members in a household. While farming was not carried out collectively, grazing lands and woods were generally for common use. Vestigial pockets of commune-like land tenure and political organization survived in western Europe, but the mir--which in underdeveloped peasant Russia included the overwhelming majority of the population--was unlike anything that then existed in the developed world. Probably for this reason, it figured not at all in Marx's analysis of capitalism in volume I of Capital. For the Russian revolutionaries of the late nineteenth cenytury, however, a key question was whether the structure of the mir could serve as a springboard for a direct transition to socialism.

The centerpiece of Late Marx and the Russian Road is the first complete English translation of Marx's 1881 drafts of a letter to the populist Vera Zasulich concerning the nature of the Russian peasant commune. Zasulich had attained considerable notoriety as a result of her 1878 attempt to assassiante the governor of St. Petersburg and her subsequent acquittal in a major political trial. The question she posed to Marx about the ultimate fate of the peasant commune in Russia went to the very heart of issues of revolutionary strategy and historical process that are still being debated in the third world today. If the rurual commune were freed of the exorbitant exactions of the nobility and the state and could develop "in a socialist direction," Zasulich wrote Marx, the logical approach for revolutionaries would be to work for "the liberation and development of the commune." If, on the other hand, the commune "is destined to perish" as a result of peasant proletarianization and land passing into the hands of the bourgeoisie, the task of revolutionaries would be "to conduct propaganda solely among the urban workers."

Judging by Marx's extensive 1881 drafts, the task of coming to terms with Zasulich's straightforward query was taken with the utmost seriousness. It is also apparent, as Shanin and Wada point out in their essays, that the drafts are representative of an evolution in Marx's own thought, one which reflected an intensive study of Russia in the last decade of his life. While in 1898 Marx had (in a letter to Engels) referred to the Russian peasant commune as "trash" that was coming "to its end," in the Zasulich drafts he attacks interpretations of his theory which emphasized inevitability and universality. The Marx of 1881 is unequivocal about the possibility that Russia might be able to skip the bourgeois stage of development. He maintains moreover that the analysis in Capital I was meant to apply only to Western Europe and that "the commune in its present form ... many become the direct starting-point of the economic system toward which modern society is tending; it may open a new chapter that does not begin with its own suicide." In Marx's letter to the editors of Otechestvennye Zapiski (Notes of the Fatherland), also included in the collection, he further remarks that if Russia continues along the road followed by the West, "it will lose the finest chance ever offered by history to a people and undergo all the fateful vicissitudes of the capitalist regime."

the circumstances surrounding the discovery and publication of the 1881 drafts help to explain why these historical particularist nuances in Marx's thought never had much impact on the later "Marxisms" of either his bourgeois detractors or his Stalinist epigones, both of which saw Marxism as a variety of universal "stage theory." The Zasulich drafts were found only in 1911 by David Ryazanov, later the first director of the Marx-Engels Institute. They were translated with Bukharin's help shortly afterward but were published only in 1924, after a delay of 42 years.

While the 1881 drafts were apparently Marx's most extensive exposition of his views on Russia, the earlier discovery or publication of related material--such as the letter to Otechestvennye Communicst Manifesto (also included in this collection)--suggest that the reasons these views were ignored by a later generation of Marx's followers go beyond simple ignorance of the relevant texts. Already in 1879 the Russian populist movement had split and the Black Repartition group, which included such key figures as Zasulich and Plekhanov, opted soon after for an interpretation of Marxism which emphasized the necessity of a capitalist stage in Russia. With the formation of the Emancipation of Labor group, the direct precursor of the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party, efforts were made, in Shanin's words, by "Marxists who kenw better than Marx what Marxism is ... to censor him on the sly, for his own stake." After the death of Marx, Plekhanov became Engels' principal guide to Russia, reinforcing the latter's tendecy to conceive history in unilineal terms and helping to maintain in oblivion the populist writers who had so influenced Marx's views on Russia. Finally, with the institutionalization of Marxism in the soviet Union after 1917, the requirements of state legitimation favored idelogical representations stressign the single forward march of progress.

Is it indeed true, as Shanin asserts, that Russian populism should be added to the German philosophy, French socialism, and British political economy, which Engels named as the key influences on Marx's thought? The texts in Late Marx and the Russian Road suggest that Marx's reading of the populists, especially the programmatic statements of the People's Will organization, did strengthen the particularist strain in his thinking and increasingly led him to view Russia as a variety of "Oriental despotism," a highly centralized bureaucracy "above" the peasant communes. One finds also, in contrast to both Soviet and Western critics of Marx's "Oriental despotism" thesis who charge that it does not constitute a class analysis, that the 1881 drafts contain an explicit discussion, drawn in part from the populist Chernyshevskii, of the concrete mechanisms through which the mir was exploited by the state, the landed nobility, and local merchants and users. It is interesting as well that Chernyshevskii's descriptions of the Russian laboring class as "peasants, part-time workers, and wage workers" has echoes not only in Marx's discussion of peasant differentiation in Russia, where he notes the devastating effects on the communes of the "world market in which capitalist production is predominant," but in contemporary analyses of third world underdevelopment.

Several other chapters of Late Marx and the Russian Road also deserve mention. Sayer and Corrigan's essay, while taking issue with Shanin's notion that the "late Marx" broke with an earlier evolutionism, agrees that the writings on Russia are "a major and scandolously neglected resource for socialists today." Marx's tongue-in-cheek "Confessions," appended to the Russians materials, provided a rare glance at Marx the man will disappoint those who may have hoped he was a feminist before his time. Jonathan Sanders' biographical notes on the populists and early Marxists in Russia are written with humor and a critical appreciation for those individuals and theoretical currents that were on the losing end of history. He describes, for example, the erudite Ryazanov telling Stalin not to make a fool of himself and the surreal spectacle of the engineer Kibal'chich, a bomb technician for the People's Will, awaiting execution in a Tsarist dungeon in 1881 and occupying himself with plans for jet-propelled flying machines. Unfortunately, Derek Sayer's sketch on "Marx after Capital," essentially a chronology of discrete items unconnected by linking sentences, does not read with the same ease. Nevertheless, it does list in one place the key moments in the development of Marx's views of Russia, something which the more synthetic essays by Shanin, Wada, and Sayer and Corrigan do not attempt to accomplish.

Perhaps the most important question left unaddressed in Late Marx and the Russian Road is the relation of this area of Marx's thought to that of Lenin and later Russian Marxists. In The Development of Capitalism in Russia Lenin posited tow possible courses of capitalist development in Russian agriculture: a "Junker" road, in which feudal landlors gradually become capitalists and peasants become wage laborers; and a "revolutionary" road involving the destruction of landlordism and the emergence of small peasant farmers. The "English road" discussed by Marx in Capital III is largely absent from Lenin's discussion, as--of course--is the "Russian road" elaborated in the 1881 drafts. This cannot have escaped Shanin, who ironically titled the present Bolshevik conceptions of peasant differentiation in the Russian countryside. In spite of Shanin's comment that "Marx's approach to the Russian peasantry ... proved on balance more realistic than that of the Russian Marxists in 1920," little systematic effort is given to comparing Marx with his Russian followers. This task may, however, be best left for the next stage in the debate, where the materials in Late Marx and the Russian Road will no doubt occupy a central position.
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Author:Edelman, Marc
Publication:Monthly Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1984
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