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The reader is probably aware that immediately after the Crimean War Russia was subjected to a series of sweeping reforms, including the emancipation of the serfs and the creation of a new system of local self-government, and he may naturally wonder how it came to pass that a curious, primitive institution like the rural Commune succeeded in weathering the bureaucratic hurricane. This strange phenomena I now proceed to explain, partly because the subject is in itself interesting, and partly because I hope thereby to throw some light on the peculiar intellectual condition of the Russian educated classes.

When it became evident, in 1857, that the serfs were about to be emancipated, it was at first pretty generally supposed that the rural Commune would be entirely abolished, or at least radically modified. At that time many Russians were enthusiastic, indiscriminate admirers of English institutions, and believed, in common with the orthodox school of political economists, that England had acquired her commercial and industrial superiority by adopting the principle of individual liberty and unrestricted competition, or, as French writers term it, the “laissez faire” principle. This principle is plainly inconsistent with the rural Commune, which compels the peasantry to possess land, prevents an enterprising peasant from acquiring the land of his less enterprising neighbours, and places very considerable restrictions on the freedom of action of the individual members. Accordingly it was assumed that the rural Commune, being inconsistent with the modern spirit of progress, would find no place in the new regime of liberty which was about to be inaugurated.

No sooner had these ideas been announced in the Press than they called forth strenuous protests. In the crowd of protesters were two well-defined groups. On the one hand there were the so-called Slavophils, a small band of patriotic, highly educated Moscovites, who were strongly disposed to admire everything specifically Russian, and who habitually refused to bow the knee to the wisdom of Western Europe. These gentlemen, in a special organ which they had recently founded, pointed out to their countrymen that the Commune was a venerable and peculiarly Russian institution, which had mitigated in the past the baneful influence of serfage, and would certainly in the future confer inestimable benefits on the emancipated peasantry. The other group was animated by a very different spirit. They had no sympathy with national peculiarities, and no reverence for hoary antiquity. That the Commune was specifically Russian or Slavonic, and a remnant of primitive times, was in their eyes anything but a recommendation in its favour. Cosmopolitan in their tendencies, and absolutely free from all archaeological sentimentality, they regarded the institution from the purely utilitarian point of view. They agreed, however, with the Slavophils in thinking that its preservation would have a beneficial influence on the material and moral welfare of the peasantry.

For the sake of convenience it is necessary to designate this latter group by some definite name, but I confess I have some difficulty in making a choice. I do not wish to call these gentlemen Socialists, because many people habitually and involuntarily attach a stigma to the word, and believe that all to whom the term is applied must be first-cousins to the pétroleuses. To avoid misconceptions of this kind, it will be well to designate them simply by the organ which most ably represented their views, and to call them the adherents of The Contemporary.

The Slavophils and the adherents of The Contemporary, though differing widely from each other in many respects, had the same immediate object in view, and accordingly worked together. With great ingenuity they contended that the Communal system of land tenure had much greater advantages, and was attended with much fewer inconveniences, than people generally supposed. But they did not confine themselves to these immediate practical advantages, which had very little interest for the general reader. The writers in The Contemporary explained that the importance of the rural Commune lies, not in its actual condition, but in its capabilities of development, and they drew, with prophetic eye, most attractive pictures of the happy rural Commune of the future. Let me give here, as an illustration, one of these prophetic descriptions:

“Thanks to the spread of primary and technical education the peasants have become well acquainted with the science of agriculture, and are always ready to undertake in common the necessary improvements. They no longer exhaust the soil by exporting the grain, but sell merely certain technical products containing no mineral ingredients. For this purpose the Communes possess distilleries, starch-works, and the like, and the soil thereby retains its original fertility. The scarcity induced by the natural increase of the population is counteracted by improved methods of cultivation. If the Chinese, who know nothing of natural science, have succeeded by purely empirical methods in perfecting agriculture to such an extent that a whole family can support itself on a few square yards of land, what may not the European do with the help of chemistry, botanical physiology, and the other natural sciences?”

Coming back from the possibilities of the future to the actualities of the present, these ingenious and eloquent writers pointed out that in the rural Commune, Russia possessed a sure preventive against the greatest evil of West-European social organisation, the Proletariat. Here the Slavophils could strike in with their favourite refrain about the rotten social condition of Western Europe; and their temporary allies, though they habitually scoffed at the Slavophil jeremiads, had no reason for the moment to contradict them. Very soon the Proletariat became, for the educated classes, a species of bugbear, and the reading public were converted to the doctrine that the Communal institutions should be preserved as a means of excluding the monster from Russia.

This fear of what is vaguely termed the Proletariat is still frequently to be met with in Russia, and I have often taken pains to discover precisely what is meant by the term. I cannot, however, say that my efforts have been completely successful. The monster seems to be as vague and shadowy as the awful forms which Milton placed at the gate of the infernal regions. At one moment he seems to be simply our old enemy Pauperism, but when we approach a little nearer we find that he expands to colossal dimensions, so as to include all who do not possess inalienable landed property. In short, he turns out to be, on examination, as vague and undefinable as a good bugbear ought to be; and this vagueness contributed probably not a little to his success.

The influence which the idea of the Proletariat exercised on the public mind and on the legislation at the time of the Emancipation is a very notable fact, and well worthy of attention, because it helps to illustrate a point of difference between Russians and Englishmen.

Englishmen are, as a rule, too much occupied with the multifarious concerns of the present to look much ahead into the distant future. We profess, indeed, to regard with horror the maxim, Âpres nous deluge! and we should probably annihilate with our virtuous indignation any one who should boldly profess the principle. And yet we often act almost as if we were really partisans of that heartless creed. When called upon to consider the interests of the future generations, we declared that “sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,” and stigmatise as visionaries and dreamers all who seek to withdraw our attention from the present. A modern Cassandra who confidently predicts the near exhaustion of our coal-fields, or graphically describes a crushing national disaster that must some day overtake us, may attract some public attention; but when we learn that the misfortune is not to take place in our time, we placidly remark that future generations must take care of themselves, and that we cannot reasonably be expected to bear their burdens. When we are obliged to legislate, we proceed in a cautious, tentative way, and are quite satisfied with any homely, simple remedies that common sense and experience may suggest, without taking the trouble to inquire whether the remedy adopted is in accordance with scientific theories. In short, there is a certain truth in those “famous prophetick pictures” spoken of by Stillingfleet, which “represent the fate of England by a mole, a creature blind and busy, continually working under ground.”

In Russia we find the opposite extreme. There reformers have been trained, not in the arena of practical politics, but in the school of political speculation. As soon, therefore, as they begin to examine any simple matter with a view to legislation, it at once becomes a “question,” and flies up into the region of political and social science. Whilst we have been groping along an unexplored path, the Russians have at least in recent times been constantly mapping out, with the help of foreign experience, the country that lay before them, and advancing with gigantic strides according to the newest political theories. Men trained in this way cannot rest satisfied with homely remedies which merely alleviate the evils of the moment. They wish to “tear up evil by the roots,” and to legislate for future generations as well as for themselves.

This tendency was peculiarly strong at the time of the Emancipation. The educated classes were profoundly convinced that the system of Nicholas I. had been a mistake, and that a new and brighter era was about to dawn upon the country. Everything had to be reformed. The whole social and political edifice had to be reconstructed on entirely new principles.

Let us imagine the position of a man who, having no practical acquaintance with building, suddenly finds himself called upon to construct a large house, containing all the newest appliances for convenience and comfort. What will his first step be? Probably he will proceed at once to study the latest authorities on architecture and construction, and when he has mastered the general principles he will come down gradually to the details. This is precisely what the Russians did when they found themselves called upon to reconstruct the political and social edifice. They eagerly consulted the most recent English, French, and German writers on social and political science, and here it was that they made the acquaintance of the Proletariat.

People who read books of travel without ever leaving their own country are very apt to acquire exaggerated notions regarding the hardships and dangers of uncivilised life. They read about savage tribes, daring robbers, ferocious wild beasts, poisonous snakes, deadly fevers, and the like; and they cannot but wonder how a human being can exist for a week among such dangers. But if they happen thereafter to visit the countries described, they discover to their surprise that, though the descriptions may not have been exaggerated, life under such conditions is much easier than they supposed. Now the Russians who read about the Proletariat were very much like the people who remain at home and devour books of travel. They gained exaggerated notions, and learned to fear the Proletariat much more than we do, who habitually live in the midst of it. Of course it is quite possible that their view of the subject is truer than ours, and that we may some day, like the people who live tranquilly on the slopes of a volcano, be rudely awakened from our fancied security. But this is an entirely different question. I am at present not endeavouring to justify our habitual callousness with regard to social dangers, but simply seeking to explain why the Russians, who have little or no practical acquaintance with pauperism, should have taken such elaborate precautions against it.

But how can the preservation of the Communal institutions lead to this “consummation devoutly to be wished,” and how far are the precautions likely to be successful?

Those who have studied the mysteries of social science have generally come to the conclusion that the Proletariat has been formed chiefly by the expropriation of the peasantry or small land-holders, and that its formation might be prevented, or at least retarded, by any system of legislation which would secure the possession of land for the peasants and prevent them from being uprooted from the soil. Now it must be admitted that the Russian Communal system is admirably adapted for this purpose. About one-half of the arable land has been reserved for the peasantry, and cannot be encroached on by the great landowners or the capitalists, and every adult peasant, roughly speaking, has a right to a share of this land. When I have said that the peasantry compose about five-sixths of the population, and that it is extremely difficult for a peasant to sever his connection with the rural Commune, it will be at once evident that, if the theories of social philosophers are correct, and if the sanguine expectations entertained in many quarters regarding the permanence of the present Communal institutions are destined to be realised, there is little or no danger of a numerous Proletariat being formed, and the Russians are justified in maintaining, as they often do, that they have successfully solved one of the most important and most difficult of social problems.

But is there any reasonable chance of these sanguine expectations being realised?

This is, doubtless, a most complicated and difficult question, but it cannot be shirked. However sceptical we may be with regard to social panaceas of all sorts, we cannot dismiss with a few hackneyed phrases a gigantic experiment in social science involving the material and moral welfare of many millions of human beings. On the other hand, I do not wish to exhaust the reader’s patience by a long series of multifarious details and conflicting arguments. What I propose to do, therefore, is to state in a few words the conclusions at which I have arrived, after a careful study of the question in all its bearings, and to indicate in a general way how I have arrived at these conclusions.

If Russia were content to remain a purely agricultural country of the Sleepy Hollow type, and if her Government were to devote all its energies to maintaining economic and social stagnation, the rural Commune might perhaps prevent the formation of a large Proletariat in the future, as it has tended to prevent it for centuries in the past. The periodical redistributions of the Communal land would secure to every family a portion of the soil, and when the population became too dense, the evils arising from inordinate subdivision of the land might be obviated by a carefully regulated system of emigration to the outlying, thinly populated provinces. All this sounds very well in theory, but experience is proving that it cannot be carried out in practice. In Russia, as in Western Europe, the struggle for life, even among the conservative agricultural classes, is becoming yearly more and more intense, and is producing both the desire and the necessity for greater freedom of individual character and effort, so that each man may make his way in the world according to the amount of his intelligence, energy, spirit of enterprise, and tenacity of purpose. Whatever institutions tend to fetter the individual and maintain a dead level of mediocrity have little chance of subsisting for any great length of time, and it must be admitted that among such institutions the rural Commune in its present form occupies a prominent place. All its members must possess, in principle if not always in practice, an equal share of the soil and must practice the same methods of agriculture, and when a certain inequality has been created by individual effort it is in great measure wiped out by a redistribution of the Communal land.

Now, I am well aware that in practice the injustice and inconveniences of the system, being always tempered and corrected by ingenious compromises suggested by long experience, are not nearly so great as the mere theorist might naturally suppose; but they are, I believe, quite great enough to prevent the permanent maintenance of the institution, and already there are ominous indications of the coming change, as I shall explain more fully when I come to deal with the consequences of serf-emancipation. On the other hand there is no danger of a sudden, general abolition of the old system. Though the law now permits the transition from Communal to personal hereditary tenure, even the progressive enterprising peasants are slow to avail themselves of the permission; and the reason I once heard given for this conservative tendency is worth recording. A well-to-do peasant who had been in the habit of manuring his land better than his neighbours, and who was, consequently, a loser by the existing system, said to me: “Of course I want to keep the allotment I have got. But if the land is never again to be divided my grandchildren may be beggars. We must not sin against those who are to come after us.” This unexpected reply gave me food for reflection. Surely those muzhiks who are so often accused of being brutally indifferent to moral obligations must have peculiar deep-rooted moral conceptions of their own which exercise a great influence on their daily life. A man who hesitates to sin against his grandchildren still unborn, though his conceptions of the meum and the tuum in the present may be occasionally a little confused, must possess somewhere deep down in his nature a secret fund of moral feeling of a very respectable kind. Even among the educated classes in Russia the way of looking at these matters is very different from ours. We should naturally feel inclined to applaud, encourage, and assist the peasants who show energy and initiative, and who try to rise above their fellows. To the Russian this seems at once inexpedient and immoral. The success of the few, he explains, is always obtained at the expense of the many, and generally by means which the severe moralist cannot approve of. The rich peasants, for example, have gained their fortune and influence by demoralising and exploiting their weaker brethren, by committing all manner of illegalities, and by bribing the local authorities. Hence they are styled Miroyedy (Commune-devourers) or Kulaki (fists), or something equally uncomplimentary. Once this view is adopted, it follows logically that the Communal institutions, in so far as they form a barrier to the activity of such persons, ought to be carefully preserved. This idea underlies nearly all the arguments in favour of the Commune, and explains why they are so popular. Russians of all classes have, in fact, a leaning towards socialistic notions, and very little sympathy with our belief in individual initiative and unrestricted competition.

Even if it be admitted that the Commune may effectually prevent the formation of an agricultural Proletariat, the question is thereby only half answered. Russia aspires to become a great industrial and commercial country, and accordingly her town population is rapidly augmenting. We have still to consider, then, how the Commune affects the Proletariat of the towns. In Western Europe the great centres of industry have uprooted from the soil and collected in the towns a great part of the rural population. Those who yielded to this attractive influence severed all connection with their native villages, became unfit for field labour, and were transformed into artisans or factory-workers. In Russia this transformation could not easily take place. The peasant might work during the greater part of his life in the towns, but he did not thereby sever his connection with his native village. He remained, whether he desired it or not, a member of the Commune, possessing a share of the Communal land, and liable for a share of the Communal burdens. During his residence in the town his wife and family remained at home, and thither he himself sooner or later returned. In this way a class of hybrids half-peasants, half-artisans has been created, and the formation of a town Proletariat has been greatly retarded.

The existence of this hybrid class is commonly cited as a beneficent result of the Communal institutions. The artisans and factory labourers, it is said, have thus always a home to which they can retire when thrown out of work or overtaken by old age, and their children are brought up in the country, instead of being reared among the debilitating influences of overcrowded cities. Every common labourer has, in short, by this ingenious contrivance, some small capital and a country residence.

In the present transitional state of Russian society this peculiar arrangement is at once natural and convenient, but amidst its advantages it has many serious defects. The unnatural separation of the artisan from his wife and family leads to very undesirable results, well known to all who are familiar with the details of peasant life in the northern provinces. And whatever its advantages and defects may be, it cannot be permanently retained. At the present time native industry is still in its infancy. Protected by the tariff from foreign competition, and too few in number to produce a strong competition among themselves, the existing factories can give to their owners a large revenue without any strenuous exertion. Manufacturers can therefore allow themselves many little liberties, which would be quite inadmissible if the price of manufactured goods were lowered by brisk competition. Ask a Lancashire manufacturer if he could allow a large portion of his workers to go yearly to Cornwall or Caithness to mow a field of hay or reap a few acres of wheat or oats! And if Russia is to make great industrial progress, the manufacturers of Moscow, Lodz, Ivanovo, and Shui will some day be as hard pressed as are those of Bradford and Manchester. The invariable tendency of modern industry, and the secret of its progress, is the ever-increasing division of labour; and how can this principle be applied if the artisans insist on remaining agriculturists?

The interests of agriculture, too, are opposed to the old system. Agriculture cannot be expected to make progress, or even to be tolerably productive, if it is left in great measure to women and children. At present it is not desirable that the link which binds the factory-worker or artisan with the village should be at once severed, for in the neighbourhood of the large factories there is often no proper accommodation for the families of the workers, and agriculture, as at present practised, can be carried on successfully though the Head of the Household happens to be absent. But the system must be regarded as simply temporary, and the disruption of large families a phenomenon of which I have already spoken renders its application more and more difficult.