BEFORE OCTOBER 22, 2004:
This webpage (
02.htm) had pages 152–170;
currently it has pages 187–191.
Before passing to the second part of Mr. Mikhailovsky’s “criticism,” which this time is not directed against Marx’s theory in general but against the Russian Social-Democrats in particular, we shall have to make a little digression. When criticising Marx, Mr. Mikhailovsky not only made no attempt to give an exact exposition of Marx’s theory but horribly distorted it, and in just the same way he now most unscrupulously garbles the ideas of the Russian Social-Democrats. The truth must be restored. This can be done most conveniently by comparing the ideas of the earlier Russian socialists with the ideas of the Social-Democrats. I borrow an account of the former from an article by Mr. Mikhailovsky in Russkaya Mysl, 1892, No. 6, in which he also spoke of Marxism (and spoke of it—be it said in reproach to him—in a decent tone, without dealing with problems which, in a censored press, can be treated only in Burenin fashion, without confusing the Marxists with all sorts of riffraff) and expounded his own views in opposition to Marxism—or, at least, if not in opposition to, then parallel to Marxism. Of course, I have not the least desire to offend either Mr. Mikhailovsky, by classing him among the socialists, or the Russian socialists, by putting Mr. Mikhailovsky on a par with them; but I think that the line of argument is essentially the same in both cases, the difference being only in the degree of firmness, straightforwardness and consistency of their convictions.
Describing the ideas of Otechestvenniye Zapiski, Mr. Mikhailovsky wrote: “We included the ownership of the land by the tiller and of the implements of labour by the producer among moral and political ideals.” The point of departure, as you see, is most well-intentioned, inspired by the best wishes. . . . “The medieval forms of labour still existing in our country had been seriously shaken, but we saw no reason to put a complete end to them for the sake of any doctrine whatever, liberal or non-liberal.”
Strange argument! Obviously, “forms of labour” of any kind can be shaken only if they are superseded by some other forms; yet we do not find our author (nor would we find any of his like-minded friends, for that matter) even attempting to analyse and to explain these new forms, or to ascertain why they supplant the old. Stranger still is the second half of the tirade: “We saw no reason to put an end to these forms for the sake of any doctrine.” What means do “we” (i.e., the socialists—see the above reservation) possess to “put an end” to forms of labour, that is, to reconstruct the existing production relations between the members of society? Is not the idea of remaking these relations in accordance with a doctrine absurd? Listen to what comes next; “Our task is not to rear, out of our own national depths, a civilisation that is positively original; but neither is it to transplant Western civilisation to our own country in toto, together with all the contradictions that are tearing it apart; we must take what is good from wherever we can; and whether it be our own or foreign is not a matter of principle, but of practical convenience. Surely, this is so simple, clear and understandable that there is nothing even to discuss.” Indeed, how simple it is! “Take” what is good from everywhere—and the trick is done! From the medieval forms “take” the labourers ownership of the means of production, and from the new (i.e., capitalist) forms “take” liberty, equality, enlightenment and culture. And there is nothing to discuss! Here the whole subjective method in sociology is as clear as daylight: sociology starts with a utopia—the labourers ownership of the land—and indicates the conditions for realising the desirable, namely, “take” what is good from here and from there. This philosopher takes a purely metaphysical view of social relations as of a simple mechanical aggregation of various institutions, a simple mechanical concatenation of various phenomena. He plucks out one of these phenomena—the cultivators ownership of the land in its medieval forms—and thinks that it can be transplanted to all other forms, just as a brick can be transferred from one building to another. But that is not studying social relations; it is mutilating the material to be studied. In reality, there was no such thing as the cultivators ownership of the land existing separately and independently, as you have taken it; it was only one of the links in the then existing production relations, which consisted in the land being divided up among large landed proprietors, landlords, who allotted it to the peasants in order to exploit them, so that the land was, as it were, wages in kind: it provided the peasant with necessary products, so that he might be able to produce a surplus product for the landlord; it provided the means for the peasants to render feudal service to the landlord. Why did the author not follow up this system of production relations, instead of confining himself to plucking out one phenomenon and thus presenting it in an absolutely false light? Because the author does not know how to handle social problems: he (I repeat, I am using Mr. Mikhailovsky’s arguments only as an example for criticising Russian socialism as a whole) does not set out at all to explain the then existing “forms of labour” and to present them as a definite system of production relations, as a definite social formation. To use Marx’s expression, the dialectical method, which requires us to regard society as a living organism in its functioning and development, is alien to him.
Without even asking himself why the old forms of labour are supplanted by the new, he repeats exactly the same error when he discusses these new forms. For him it is enough to note that these forms “shake” the cultivators ownership of the land—that is, speaking more generally, find expression in the separation of the producer from the means of production—and to condemn this for not conforming to the ideal. And here again his argument is utterly absurd: he plucks out one phenomenon (land dispossession), without even attempting to present it as an element of a now different system of production relations based on commodity economy, which necessarily begets competition among the commodity producers, inequality, the ruin of some and the enrichment of others. He noted one thing, the ruin of the masses, and put aside the other, the enrichment of the minority, and this made it impossible for him to understand either.
And such methods he calls “seeking answers to the questions of life clothed in flesh and blood” (Russkoye Bogatstvo, 1894, No. 1), when, as a matter of fact, quite the contrary is the case: unable and unwilling to explain reality, to look it straight in the face, he ignominiously fled from these questions of life, with its struggle of the propertied against the propertyless, to the realm of innocent utopias. This he calls “seeking answers to the questions of life in the ideal treatment of their burning and complex actual reality” (Russkoye Bogatstvo, No. 1), when, as a matter of fact, he did not even attempt to analyse and explain this actual reality.
Instead, he presented us with a utopia contrived by senselessly plucking individual elements from various social formations—taking one thing from the medieval form, another from the “new” form, and so on. It is obvious that a theory based on this was bound to stand aloof from actual social evolution, for the simple reason that our utopians had to live and act not under social relations formed from elements taken from here and from there, but under those which determine the relation of the peasant to the kulak (the enterprising muzhik), of the handicraftsman to the buyer-up, of the worker to the factory owner, and which they completely failed to understand. Their attempts and efforts to remould these un-understood relations in accordance with their ideal were bound to end in failure.
Such, in very general outline, was how the problem of socialism stood in Russia when “the Russian Marxists appeared on the scene.”
What they began with was a criticism of the subjective methods of the earlier socialists. Not satisfied with merely stating the fact of exploitation and condemning it, they desired to explain it. Seeing that the whole post-Reform history of Russia consisted in the ruin of the masses and the enrichment of a minority, observing the colossal expropriation of the small producers side by side with universal technical progress, noting that these polarising tendencies arose and increased wherever, and to the extent that, commodity economy developed and became consolidated, they could not but conclude that they were confronted with a bourgeois (capitalist) organisation of social economy, necessarily giving rise to the expropriation and oppression of the masses. Their practical programme was directly determined by this conviction; this programme was to join in the struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, the struggle of the propertyless classes against the propertied, which constitutes the principal content of economic reality in Russia, from the most out-of-the-way village to the most up-to date and perfected factory. How were they to join in? The answer was again suggested by reality. Capitalism had brought the principal branches of industry to the stage of large-scale machine industry; by thus socialising production, it had created the material conditions for a new system and had at the same time created a new social force—the class of factory workers, the urban proletariat. Being subjected to the same bourgeois exploitation—for such, in its economic essence, i.e., the exploitation to which the whole working population of Russia is subjected—this class, however, has been placed in a special, favourable position as far as its emancipation is concerned: it no longer has any ties with the old society based entirely on exploitation; the very conditions of its labour and the circumstances of life organise it, compel it to think and enable it to step into the arena of political struggle. It was only natural that the Social-Democrats should direct all their attention to, and base all their hopes on, this class, that they should reduce their programme to the development of its class consciousness, and direct all their activities towards helping it rise to wage a direct political struggle against the present regime, and towards drawing the whole Russian proletariat into this struggle.
 “By medieval forms of labour”—the author explains in another place—“are meant not only communal landownership, handicraft industry and artel organisation. All these are undoubtedly medieval forms, but to them must be added all forms of ownership of land or implements of production by the labourer.” —Lenin