Saturday, 7 January 2012

The Peasant Commune in Russia: Rural Anarchy and Feudal Socialism

The Peasant Commune in Russia: Rural Anarchy and Feudal Socialism
By M. Raphael Johnson

The Russian peasant commune was an example of a real rural and Christian anarchism at work. The commune protected the peasantry from want, alienation, poverty and tyranny. By the end of the 19th century, the nascent capitalist classes were screaming for the commune to be destroyed, for peasants could not be dragooned into the cities or to work on the railroads or factories while protected by numerous layers of communal obligations, immunities and rights. In England at the same time, the capitalist ruling classes had already succeeded in tearing apart rural society, turning it over to landlords to exploit for personal profit, eliminating the small holdings and self-sufficient communities that were a threat to the stage, as well as to capitalism. By the beginning of the 20th century, English and American working class kids were being mutilated in the robber baron factories in huge numbers, with no advocacy or protections of any kind. The formerly protected rural peasants were turned into miserable proletarians. In Russia, the trend was precisely the opposite, as the Russian royal state introduced even more protections to the commune and immunities for workers.
The institution of the peasant commune in pre-revolutionary Russia is one of the world’s unique institutions; and also one that is almost unknown. As Americans continue to work long hours for comparatively less pay, continue to see unions disappear, and see any kind of job security dissipate, maybe it is time to look at other models of economic organization.
It need not be said that the commune, for American historiography, is basically derided. This is largely for one important reason: the architects of liberalism and capitalism in Russia were the elite: the elite political and economic forces. For them, the commune was an irritant, a set of protections that permitted the average peasant a great deal of protections against exploitation. The destruction of the commune, then, was absolutely necessary for the Russian neo-Jacobins to impose constitutional capitalism on royal Russia. (cf. my The Third Rome: Holy Russia, Tsarism and Orthodoxy for a more detailed argument in support of this thesis.)
In the commune, the Church calendar was the primary medium for telling time. This meant that the work year was extremely short, for the calendar of traditional Christianity saw four fast period yearly as well as hundreds of feasts, either local, national or pan-Orthodox. One of the main reasons the liberal bourgeois in Russia hated the commune was that it sanctioned the traditional agrarian practice of only working about 2/3 of the year. The rest was made up in fasting, feasting and cultural pursuits. Therefore, the protections, immunities and traditions of communal life were absolutely incompatible with capitalism, “constitutionalism” and liberalism.
In a powerful and seminal article from Boris Mironov, “The Russian Peasant Commune after the Reforms of the 1860’s.” (Slavic Review, Vol. 44, Number 3 (Fall 1985)), is extremely important for the understanding of the peasant commune. Its significance lies in the fact that it takes its data from the survey of 816 communes between 1878 and 1880, sponsored by the Russian Geographical Society and the Russian Free Economic Society. Its results were astounding, and largely supported the claims of the pro-agrarian and pro-monarchist elements in Russia, then and now. The Russian peasant had it better in Russia than likely anywhere else in the world. This data proves it.
It is important to keep in mind the structure of the Imperial Russian state around the middle of the 19th century. The tsar’s power was basically limited to foreign policy and general taxation. He, of course, was the chief spokesman for the nation and the defender of the Orthodox church. However, at the agrarian level, where 90% of the population lived, royal authority was basically invisible. The peasant commune was the only relevant authority the peasant had to deal with.
Therefore, it is accurate to say that Russia was not a single, unitary state, but rather a collection of thousands of independent agrarian republics, held together by rather weak cords to the central monarchy. Professor Charles Sarolea, who visited Russia regularly, wrote in the 1925 issue of the English Review:
On closer examination we find the [Imperial] Russian state was a vast federation of fifty thousand small peasant republics each busy with its own affairs, obedient to its own laws and even possessing its own tribunals of starotsas (elders). The Russian state was not undemocratic, on the contrary if anything, there was too much democracy.
What makes the peasant commune such a unique institution is the power that it had. Each commune was a completely self-contained unit, answering to no other authority than its own body of elected elders. All police functions were discharged by the communal authorities, all legal matters were dealt with by the same. Any damage to property, any criminal offence whatsoever, was dealt with at the communal level. All public works besides were also within the jurisdiction of the commune. It maintained stores of grain during famines and assisted poorer members who suffered during the lean months of the spring. It controlled the cultural life of the people as well as all education. It even built its own parish churches and trained many of the rural clergy. The commune maintained all schools and hospitals. In short, it was absolute.
Now, the state’s interest in this was clear. For the commune to be self governing, yet still loyal to the monarchy, it was necessary for it to be completely independent of the state. Mironov writes “The government did not risk appointing its own people, who would have been independent of the peasant, to official positions in the commune; that would have been too expensive and ineffective at the same time” (445)
However, to make sure any village executive (specifically its chief executive) was loyal, he could be removed by the royal-appointed district governor. This, however, rarely occurred, largely because irritating the peasants, the great bastion of loyalty in the country, would not be in the interests of the royal state. Mironov continues in this vein:
If however, one analyzes how these officials actually functioned, it is clear that the government did not reach its goal: elected officials did not stand above the commune but operated under its authority, and all administrative and police measures in the commune were taken only with the consent of the village assembly. Only very rarely did elected officials become a hostile authority standing above the peasantry: they had to be periodically reelected, had no significant privileges, did not break their ties with the peasantry (elected officials were freed from taxes and other obligations, except those in kind, and continued to perform all forms of peasant labor), remained under the control of public opinion of the village (and in the event of malfeasance faced the threat of retribution), and shared the common interest of the peasants, not the interests of the state. As a rule the elected officials acted as the defenders of the commune, as petitioners and organizers. Frequently they emerged as leaders of peasant disorders despite the threat of harsh punishment. (445-6).
Many liberal Russia scholars might counter this by claiming that the elected village heads were required, after the 1860s, to faithfully carry out the will of the district authorities. However, though this is true, it was also true that no decree of the district authorities had validity in the commune unless it was approved by the village assembly.
According to the data collected by the Russian Geographic Society, the Russian peasant assembly consisted of all male heads of household. Decisions were not finalized until unanimity was reached, or, as Mironov has said, disagreement was brought to a level of silent sulking, which, at this level, was considered agreement. It is important to note, therefore, that each peasant had a specific stake in communal affairs as well as a corresponding voice. Any specific peasant, therefore, could not afford to be alienated from the community, as all decisions could be vetoed even by a relatively small group of disgruntled peasants.
In her “The Russian Peasant Family in the Second Half of the 19th Century” (Russian Studies in History, vol. 38, n.2, (Fall 1999)), Svetlana S. Kriukova sheds some more light on the structure of the family in the peasant commune. Now, though this article is not nearly as rigorous as Mironov’s (and is geographically limited to the black soil region), it is still very useful.
Because all legislation needed to pass the communal assembly, which was a function of direct democracy, the family became a far more important institution than the modern bourgeois understand. The structure of the peasant family was headed by the oldest male, though women would have that title if she was unmarried, and her sons were also unmarried (39). The wife dealt with domestic affairs and supervised the female members of the house. The wife had substantial authority in ordering marriages and the timetables concerning various economic projects. Now, the family acted as sort of a mini-commune, it was rational for the male to cast the deciding vote. However, a “mistress of the house,” that is, the mother of the wife, had relatively equal authority with the husband. Generally, disagreements within the family were solved by any elderly living within the neighborhood (41). But, regardless of who made the final decision, all functions of the household ultimately were under the scrutiny of the commune. Interestingly, the communal structure (at least in southern Russia), invented an innovation called “women’s weeks,” which were times during the year where the females of the household would be released from family or communal obligations in order to work purely for themselves. This was done both to raise more money and goods for dowries as well as provide the women in question with sufficient resources for old age or infirmity (45).
This, in many respects, was to maintain domestic solvency, for the assignment of tax duties made it imperative that each household maintained a proper standard of living. If the head of household was a drunk, or was incapable of keeping the family money properly, he was publicly berated by the communal authorities, often beaten and, in many cases, deprived of his status as head of household. It is clear that those who developed bad reputations as head of household either reformed quickly or lost their status. Many wound up in the army, with the commune then resuming care for the family until the minor male children came of age.
Those members of the family incapable of working, such as the elderly, the mentally ill crippled or sick, were guaranteed support. Whatever the family could not provide was provided by the commune. The communal courts rearranged debts and taxes, as well as the more important area of land allotment, for those families who dealt with sick or invalid members. No one was permitted to enter severe poverty.
If the state desperately needed the communes to pass certain forms of legislation, they were in no position to force the matter on them. Russian peasants are rebellious; they are fanatical traditionalists, the worst threat to any bureaucracy. The state, then, would resort to every sort of preaching and begging of the village males and elders in general to get things passed, largely in the realm of taxation. But even here, only the commune was capable of assessing tax burdens according to the ability to pay. The royal state, allegedly absolute, had no clue how much money each peasant was making or how wealthy any commune might be. All taxing decisions therefore, were made by elected elders and the assembly.
The commune, through its assembly and elected elders, decided on a periodic land redistribution, where peasant families with many children were granted more, while those with fewer were granted less. The point of work for the communal peasantry was to reach a balance, to maintain a standard of living that could provide all objective needs of the family itself. Profit was unknown, distrusted and, even until the revolution, scorned. Need was the key, and all forms of exploitation were condemned not only by law, but also by the common law of communal custom.
The communal system was based around basic subsistence agriculture as well as the periodic redistribution of land, tax duties and public works. All of this was done within the village assembly in respect to the state, the informal structure of older men in the village who exercised quite a bit of moral authority (men retired at 60 and all dues were forgiven at this time) and the elected executives. This constitutional structure permitted the wealthier peasants to pay the dues of the poorer, which was considered a moral obligation taken from Byzantine times. Poorer households were maintained in lean times largely due to the communal virtue of charity, a virtue maintained not necessarily by law, but by the strong hand of communal custom, which, if it might be said, was actually the basis of the constitution of any commune. In other words, if such ancient virtues were violated, it was not uncommon for severe punishments to me meted out by the people as a whole. Chronic violations were usually punished by banishment or, if the criminal was of the proper age, induction into the army.
As Mironov reports, one of the astonishing and revisionist aspects of communal life as the 19th century began to draw to a close was its amazing vitality. It is common in the Russian history literature in English to paint a picture of the oppressed peasants chafing at the commune (when they mention it at all) waiting to escape to take advantage of the money economy. This is nothing more than bourgeois, Whig history.
There is every reason to believe that the peasantry looked upon the bourgeois with disdain, as well as their competitive money economy. The date collected clearly proves this. When the reforms of Petr Stolypin made it easier for peasants to remove themselves from the commune and enter the bourgeois economy, very few actually did. According to the data, by the end of the 19th century, almost 90% of peasants were functioning within the communal structure. By Stolypin’s reforms in 1905-06, “only an insignificant number of peasants found an alternative to the commune in trade, industry or in the sale of their labor. As in the past, the great majority placed their hopes for a better life in the commune and a new agrarian reform. . .” (464). This shows, without question, that the peasantry had no use for the liberal capitalist parties, westernizers or western socialists. It was the commune that maintained the peasant’s loyalty to tradition and the tsar. It was only those at the extremes of the communal structure that actually left the community for the city. Those who became wealthy and sought even more wealth moved away, and those extremely poor who, for whatever reason, could not function were the two elements that left, but these never amounted to any more than 4 or 5%. Those that were criminal, slow or just plain uncooperative were inducted into the army where the famous harsh discipline of the Russian infantry would solve those problems.
The peasant commune is likely one of the greatest supporters for family liberty devised. But its superiority to western models exists not merely in the results of such organization, but also because it was no “devised.” It was perfected over 1,000 years of often hard experience. The communal structure, the tightly organized extended family and the traditional peasant love for communal and family liberty kept the state at bay right up until the revolution. The destruction of the communes, naturally, came immediately under Lenin’s rule.
The dishonest “radicals” saw the commune s a threat. Many Russian populists (narodniks), such as Alexander Herzen, believed the communal system to be the means whereby a native Russian socialism would challenge the western, Marxism brand. However, for these liberals, the communal structure was to be completely denuded of traditional culture and be largely a dependency of the New State. All that the socialists wanted had already been part of peasant life for a millennium, but the socialists simply lied as to what they wanted. They sought a non-Christian, secular state run by urban elites who treated communes as departments of state. Ultimately, this is largely the reason the Bolsheviks liquidated large segments of the peasantry. Comparisons of the peasant communal system and modern socialism are pedestrian, they have nothing in common. This is why the Russian New Men of the 20th century ultimately destroyed the commune while publicly professing devotion to it. The commune was a Christian anarchist collective, based around ethnic tradition, the church and the extended family, all interacting on the level of basic equality. Anarchists sounded ridiculous to the peasantry largely because their secular ideas, to be imposed by force, already existed, and where the virtues of charity and mutual self-government not only existed, but were part of the traditional mindset of the peasantry. The bizarre nature of Russian Masonic “radicalism” was that they were advocating what already existed. The catch was, however, that their new society was to be run by them, on secular and materialist principles with the state, of course, being all -powerful. Peasants then would be truly goyim, mere chattel, at the service of the New Men.


  1. While some radicals believed that certain elements of the obshchina could be revitalized and regenerated, and used as a point of departure for future socialist developments, I think that you yourself overestimate the emancipatory character of the peasant commune in its actually existing historical form.
    You claim that what the (i) "socialists wanted had already been part of peasant life for a millennium, but (ii) the socialists simply lied as to what they wanted." If we turn to Marx's writings on either the Russian commune or communism, it is impossible to maintain that his vision of socialism had "already been part of peasant life for a millennium." Marx envisioned communism as resting upon the most complete development of the forces of production, and the total or universal development of human powers, talents, capacities, needs, etc. This 'precondition' only emerges only as a 'result' of capitalist production itself, i.e., of a mode of production which has displaced all these limited forms of precapitalist life, and replaced them with a world-historical intercourse based solely upon a process in which individuals exercise their capabilities and satisfy their needs. The preconditions for capitalism itself, then, only emerge as a result of a long historic process as well, a process of sloughing-off a succession of older shapes of production (like the archaic communal form of Russia). This is what Marx called primitive accumulation, the prehistory of capitalism in Western Europe.
    If you believe that what "socialists wanted had already been part of peasant life for a millennium," then you still need to learn, as Engels put it, the "ABC of socialism." Socialism is born through the struggle against capitalism, this most highly developed system of production. To suppose that the primitive and archaic peasant commune holds the secret key to unlocking all the contradictions and problems of this higher mode of production with which it was only then becoming acquainted is, to say the least, a childish view of socio-economic history.
    In contrast to capitalism and communism, which exist on the aforementioned world-historical level, the limited and one-sided economic intercourse of the peasant obshchina confined the peasant's consciousness and life-activity within a most narrow compass, leaving it prey to superstition, ignorance, and prejudice. This is why the incubated life of these more or less isolated communities always gave way to a more or less centralized despotism--- not just the Tsar's, but the Bolshevik's as well.

  2. Marx believed that it was possible, after Alexander's reforms had been completed, to transform the communal conditions of the peasant commune (a commune which had been temporarily protected from primitive accumulation by these 'Liberator's' reforms) into the higher form of communal relations--- communism. However, the obshchina could only transition directly into communism through a mediated appropriation of the end-results and "positive fruits" of actually existing capitalism, i.e., the objective wealth of Western European economic development. This objective wealth, which could transform the commune and allow for its flourishing (by introducing large-scale socialized labour, machinery, social and economic connections between the communes and with the rest of the world, scientific methods of agriculture, etc.), was not something which the Russian commune could produce for itself. Hence, if Alexander's Russia was "isolated from the world," and from the "contemporaneity" with capitalism in Western Europe, these possibilities would not have existed for it. Indeed, this is precisely why the precapitalist obschina, for a "millennium" I might add, lay in waste. These possibilities only arose in light of its co-existence with capitalism.
    You observe that "at the agrarian level, where 90% of the population lived, royal authority was basically invisible. The peasant commune was the only relevant authority the peasant had to deal with." You thereby make the same mistake of Tchakov, who assumed that the "two had nothing in common!" To imagine that these primitive and isolated communities held the key to freedom in their little strips of land for a "millennium," and yet, for just as long, allowed Tsarist despotism to reign over it, is a laughable proposition.

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