Marx and the communal village

by David Glanz • Published 8 March 2020

Like trams, the more obscure theoretical positions seem to come along two at a time. It is not often in a highly industrialised and urbanised country like Australia that Marxists devote much attention to the role of pre-capitalist collectivist traditions in the transition from capitalism to socialism. Yet the question was raised – from two distinctly different perspectives – in the course of winter 1990.

In Socialist Review No. 2, Tom O’Lincoln concluded an overview of the life and works of Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui with a brief reference to the possibility that vestiges of primitive communism among Peruvian Indians might ease the success of the Peruvian workers’ revolution. In passing, he made mention of Karl Marx’s thoughts on the matter in the context of late nineteenth century Russia.

Such arguments [those of Mariátegui – DG] are reminiscent of the hopes held by some nineteenth century revolutionaries and partly shared by Marx, that Russian peasant communes could become (in Marx’s words) “the direct starting point of the economic system toward which modern society is tending” – that is, socialism. The rapid development of capitalism rendered these hopes obsolete, with the Russian peasants moving decisively towards demands for private ownership of the land. However, the long-term underdevelopment of Peru’s countryside has meant that the consciousness of the rural population has retained elements of rural communism to this day.[1]

Quite by chance, but published at around the same time, the social ecologist Ted Trainer, an academic at the University of New South Wales, also referred to Marx’s position, in an article in the June issue of The Socialist. In doing so, he was trying to strengthen his argument that a workers’ revolution was neither inevitable nor necessary for the transition to what he terms a “radical conserver society”.

So we should think carefully about whether a head-on confrontation with capital is inevitable and must be got over before we can· do anything constructive – or whether we can instead just get into building the alternatives and ignoring capitalism and thus before long sending it bankrupt.

In the last 10 years of his life Marx became quite uncertain about this question of whether we have to suffer through the maturation and self-destruction of capitalism, or whether it is instead possible. to go straight to post-capitalist communities from pre-capitalist communities. It seems that he changed his mind and ended up thinking that the direct path was possible and desirable for the Russian village.[2]

The task of this brief article will be to examine the evolution of Marx’s thinking on the topic and to defend it against Trainer’s Green utopianism. Having done so, I will make some comments on the – for Australian socialists – less immediate question of Peru.

Marx’s position

The question of the Russian peasantry in the latter half of the nineteenth and the early part of the twentieth centuries was of urgent importance to socialists. The tsarist empire was peripheral to the rapidly industrialising European states but loomed over them as the ever-present gendarme of reaction. Breaking its hold over the mass of its own, overwhelmingly rural, population was crucial to any serious revolutionary strategy. Analysing the nature of the rural economy was central to that process.[3] In a draft of a letter to the Russian Marxist Vera Zasulich in 1881, Marx wrote that the Russian primitive community was an example of a transitional form between communities based on communal living, land ownership and working of the land and communities based on private property.

“Agricultural communities”, as in the Russian case, were no longer based on family ties (whether of blood or adoption), permitted the private ownership of the farmhouse and the farmyard, and allowed members of the community to keep their produce – although land was periodically redivided. The emergence of “movable property, which is beyond the control of the community…is the solvent that corrodes the original economic and social equality”.[4] The transition to which Marx was referring was one to societies based on “slavery and servitude”, that is to oppressive class societies. But what if the “agricultural community” – which prevailed over half Russia’s cultivated land as late as 1894 according to Frederick Engels[5] – existed side by side in time and place with developed capitalism, a society where the dynamic of class struggle was towards the abolition of class? It is in Marx’s writings on this possibility that Trainer appears to find evidence for his case. In a letter to the editorial board of the Otechestvenniye Zapiski, written in 1877 but published only in 1886, Marx specifically addressed the question of whether:

…as her liberal economists maintain, Russia must begin by destroying the village community in order to pass to the capitalist regime, or whether, on the contrary, she can without experiencing the tortures of this regime appropriate all its fruits…

To conclude, as I am not fond of leaving “anything to guesswork” I shall come straight to the point… If Russia continues to pursue the path she has followed since 1861 [the abolition of serfdom – DG] she will lose the finest chance ever offered by history to a people and undergo all the fatal vicissitudes of the capitalist regime.[6]

Did this mean Marx thought it was possible either to vault the barrier of primitive accumulation or that “agricultural communities” provided an alternative source of anti-capitalist potential to the proletariat? Not at all. In the first draft of his letter to Zasulich,[7] he made it clear that although the Russian commune had survived longer than elsewhere, partly because it had escaped foreign invasion, it was on the verge of collapse.

…the present condition of the commune is no longer tenable, and…the present means of exploiting the masses will shortly be outdated by the sheer course of events. Consequently something new is required, and this new element which is being insinuated in the most various guises can always be reduced to the same thing: abolishing communal property, forming a rural middle class from the minority of more or less wealthy peasants and turning the vast majority simply into labourers.[8] (Emphasis in the original.)

(Later research by Vladimir Lenin indicated that if anything, Marx – and certainly Engels – had underplayed the speed with which the transition to agricultural capitalism was taking place. By 1899, Lenin estimated that the rural proletariat comprised fully 40 percent of the Russian population.[9] The other side of the coin was that 20 percent of households had between 60 and 70 percent of all peasant-purchased land and between 50 and 80 percent of all rented land, despite a wide degree of formal equality of land-holding.[10])

Marx was trying to do two things in this period. The first was to attack the mechanical interpretation of historical materialism that said each country had to pass through the same stages of capitalist development to reach the same point. In what was effectively a sketch of the concept of combined and uneven development, a component of the theory of permanent revolution that Leon Trotsky was to develop after 1905, Marx pointed to how it had taken Russia only a few years to adopt the kind of modern machinery and banking that had taken centuries to develop in the West.[11]

But Marx was also at pains to point out that the possibilities of “combined and uneven development” in Russian agriculture were not a simple matter of will or culture but were determined by material circumstances. As he and Engels put it a year after the draft letter to Zasulich (21 January 1882) in the preface to Georgi Plekhanov’s Russian translation of the Communist Manifesto:

The question is, can the Russian community, a form of primitive common ownership of land which is already rapidly disintegrating, be directly transformed into a higher communist form of landed property or will it first have to undergo a process of dissolution similar to that marking the historical development of the West?

The only reply one can give today is: If the Russian revolution serves as the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that the two complement one another, it is possible that Russian landed property becomes the point of departure for a development towards communism.[12]

It fell to Engels to defend the position after Marx’s death in 1883. An he was at pains to make it clear that Marx had been referring to a very specific “window of opportunity”.

The Russian community has existed for hundreds of years without ever giving rise to any incentive to develop spontaneously a higher form of common property, nor did this occur in the German Mark organisation, the Celtic clans, or the Indian and other communities with primitive communist features. Under the influence of commodity production, which encircled them or arose in their own midst and gradually penetrated them, and of exchange between individual families and individuals, all these communities more and more lost their communist characteristics…

Hence if the question can be raised at all whether the lot of the Russia community will be different and better, this is not due to this community itself but solely to the circumstance that it has remained relatively vigorous in a European country at a time when not only commodity production as such but even its highest and ultimate form, capitalist production, has in Western Europe come into contradiction with the productive forces engendered by itself… This alone is already sufficient to show that the initiative for any such transformation of the Russian community cannot come from the community itself, but solely from the industrial workers of the West. The victory of the West European proletariat over the bourgeoisie, and associated with it the supercession of capitalist production by socially controlled production, is an indispensable precondition for raising the Russian community to the same level.[13]

When Trainer attempts to recruit Marx for his side, he does so in an entirely ahistorical way. The development of small-scale, collective property that he espouses is not a step towards a post-capitalist, democratic society in itself. Indeed, under conditions of want, the only progressive feature of primitive communism is its ability to throw up elements of private ownership that can take society forward. Likewise, the nature of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie makes it impossible to move from urbanised capitalism to self-sufficient village life. Only the collective power of the working class can break the capitalists’ hegemony.

Marx’s reference to the possibility of the Russian village commune acting as a bridge between pre-capitalist and post-capitalist collective land-holding was specific to a situation where two factors intersected – the rising struggle of the proletariat and the transitional form of village organisation. That this was a very narrow window of opportunity was demonstrated not only by Lenin’s statistics but by the fact that the workers’ revolution of 1917 was forced to bribe the Russian peasantry with decrees legitimising the patterns of private land ownership the peasants had already themselves imposed. Well before 1917, Russian village life had been drawn decisively into market relations and the predominant consciousness was petty bourgeois, not collectivist. As Lenin put it:

In the civil war that has flared up in the countryside the workers are on the side of the poor peasants, as they were when they passed the S.R.-sponsored law on the socialisation of the land. We Bolsheviks were opposed to this law. Yet we signed it, because we did not want to oppose the will of the majority of peasants… We did not want to impose on the peasants the idea that the equal division of the land was useless, an idea which was alien to them.[14]

Utopians like Trainer start not from material reality but from the idea (or value change, as Trainer prefers to put it[15]). Now, while people make history, they do not do so in circumstances of their own choosing. And for the few decades in the nineteenth century that the Russian agricultural commune was a reality, the circumstances – despite what Trainer might prefer – led in precisely the opposite direction to the development of free association on the land. As Marx noted, the lack of contact between the communes, partly enforced by geography, partly by ruling class design, had facilitated the rise of a centralised despotism over the peasantry.[16] So we find that far from the communal village giving rise to a collectivism based on free association, it was the victory of the workers’ revolution in the towns that opened up that possibility. In Lenin’s words:

Why were the plans of the old co-operators, from Robert Owen onwards, fantastic? Because they dreamed of peacefully remodelling contemporary society into socialism without taking into account such fundamental questions as the class struggle, the capture of political power by the working class, the overthrow of the rule of the exploiting class. That is why we are right in regarding as entirely fantastic this “co-operative” socialism, and as romantic, and even banal, the dream of transforming class enemies into class collaborators…by merely organising the population in co-operative societies.

… But see how things have changed now that political power is in the hands of the working class… Now we are entitled to say that for us the mere growth of co-operation…is identical with the growth of socialism…[17]

And so to Peru

As I have argued above, any possibility of moving from pre-capitalist to post-capitalist collective land ownership depends on the rare conjunction of a rising working class and a communal village system. What is the situation in Peru? Let us take the rural situation first. Mariátegui, publishing in 1928, considered that “the appropriation of most communal and individual Indian property is an accomplished fact”[18] although he also stated that “our agrarian problem has a special character due to an indisputable and concrete factor: the survival of the Indian ‘community’ and of elements of practical socialism in indigenous agriculture and life”.[19]

Drawing explicit parallels with the agricultural community in nineteenth century Russia, he argued that the seizure of some of the land by the big landlords, and the division of the rest into plots too small to support a family, shackled the peasant to the land and reproduced feudal patterns of oppression side by side with a legal form that supposedly defended private property rights (Russia after 1861) or tolerated communal land holdings (Peru).[20] The situation did not seem to change drastically over the next few decades. Howard Handelman, who carried out extensive field work in Peru, wrote in 1975:

It has often been stated that in 1960 Peru and its agricultural wealth were controlled by 40 families. This was probably something of an exaggeration. However, in the southern highlands (the “mancha india”) and in many of the other sierra departments, several hundred “Iatifundistas” controlled 75 percent of the arable lands. At the other end of the spectrum were some 800,000 to one million highland families whose plots were so small that they lived on the edge of subsistence.[21]

Yet there were a number of factors at work that were undermining this apparently monolithic system of misery. While some “colonos” (peasants connected to the estates, or latifundia) in the mancha india were “donating” up to 200 days a year of free labour to the landlords,[22] a substantial majority of Indian peasants lived and worked in “comunidades indigenas”, some of which had legal protection.[23] In the comunidades:

The villager controlled his own land and generally marketed his crops as he was fit… the “comunero” might leave the village and migrate to the city (an option not generally open to the hacienda peon). He might even leave his plot in the care of a relative and reclaim possession of it when he returned to the city.[24]

While Handelman recorded that the comunidades retained features of the “ayllu” (the original peasant commune) – a technical form of collective ownership, collective village pastures and working parties, and a village council – movable property, Marx’s “solvent of equality”, was clearly an increasingly important feature.

The commercialisation of agriculture…generally increased economic inequality within the community. The more developed “comunidades” usually had greater disparities in land-holdings than was common in the Quechua [Indian – DG] villages. The most prosperous “comuneros” used their surplus income from cash crops to purchase land from their poorer neighbours. In other instances they hired fellow villagers (with little or no land) as peons.[25]

This incipient class differentiation was lubricated by social and geographical mobility. The mining, and later refining, of copper and other minerals brought impersonal capitalist relations into the communities of the central highlands, introducing tens of thousands of peasants to industrial techniques – including strikes. Modern ranching began to spread. Migration to the cities, the modest but real expansion of education into the sierras, and the proliferation of radios brought peasants into contact with the modern world.[26] Handelman concluded that few traditional (non-Spanish-speaking) villages remained and that most communities were either integrated into the market (becoming proficient at Spanish in the process) or were in transition.[27] Although the impact of all these influences was weaker in the main Indian departments because prejudice reinforced underdevelopment (and because the mines were well to the north), it seems safe to assume that the general pattern would be the same. If economic crisis may have acted as a brake on this process of integration, then there is a further factor propelling rural Peru into the world market – cocaine. According to Eduardo Crawley, editor of Latin American Newsletter, between 100,000 and 200,000 hectares in Peru are planted with coca, dwarfing the 60,000 to 100,000 hectares in Bolivia and the 22,000 to 42,000 in Columbia, and earning between $US1.3 billion and $US2.8 billion.[28] One major concentration of coca-growing is the Upper Huallaga valley. There:

…skilfully tended, a two-hectare plot on newly-cleared jungle land can produce an income of around $USI,500 a year… Some 300,000 people live in the valley, which was practically uninhabited 50 years ago, when a road was built over the Andes to the Pacific. They are Indians, migrants from the wretched mountain lands…[29]

It seems a reasonable assumption that whatever residual collective landholding patterns have survived into the late twentieth century are facing extinction, evaporating like puddles under the glare of capitalist relations. What about the working class? Centuries of Spanish colonial despoliation, followed by imperialist oppression and relative isolation from the world economy, have left their mark on the Peruvian economy. In 1981 there were 808,400 people employed in manufacturing, a rise of more than 225,000 from 1970.[30] But that absolute increase masked a relative decline in the industrial workforce – from 19 to 18 percent of the labour force between 1965 and 1980. While the agricultural workforce fell from 50 to 40 percent of the economically active in the same period, it was the service sector that was the beneficiary[31] –and in a backward economy the service sector is more heavily weighted towards street pedlars and black marketeers than to computer programmers and supermarket workers.

The weakness of the economy meant the manufacturing workforce dropped 5.4 percent between 1980 and 1983[32] and the severity of the crisis throughout most of the decade would not have improved the situation. The lash of inflation at 25 percent a month[33] and the experience of austerity under social-democratic president Alan Garcia opened up space for the victory of populist Alberto Fujimori in the presidential election of June 1990. His immediate and abrupt attack on living standards – a 3,000 percent rise in the price of petrol and a 400 percent increase for some staple foods[34] – led to a sharp outburst of class struggle, with strikes by miners, teachers and bank workers, among others.[35]

This is not the place to speculate on the course of such struggles and the prospects for Peruvian workers. But even in the best of outcomes – a seizure of state power by the working class – the evidence of a shrinking traditional sector on the land makes it ever more likely that the Peruvian “window of opportunity” to pass over directly to post-capitalist collective land ownership must be regarded as next to irrevocably shut.

[1] Thanks to Tom O’Lincoln and Mick Armstrong for comments on the draft. I, of course, take responsibility for the final product. Tom O’Lincoln, “A South American Revolutionary”, in Socialist Review No. 2, Winter 1990, pp115-116.

[2] Ted Trainer, “We Need to Consume Less”, The Socialist, June 1990. Trainer was replying to my critique of his analysis (The Socialist, May 1990). For an elaboration of his position, see Abandon Affluence, London 1985, and Developed to Death: Rethinking Third World Development, London 1989.

[3] Marx learnt Russian in order to be able to study official documents on the question and “be specially qualified to estimate the economic development in Russia”. “Letter to the Editorial Board of the Otechestvenniye Zapiski”, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Pre-Capitalist Socio-Economic Formations, Moscow, 1979, p271.

[4] “Reply to a Letter from Vera Zasulich (Draft)”, in Pre-Capitalist Socio-Economic Formations, pp94-296.

[5] “The Afterword to Soziales Aus Russland”, in Pre-Capitalist Socio-Economic Formations, p477.

[6] “Letter to the Editorial Board of the Otechestvenniye Zapiski”, in Pre-Capitalist Socio-Economic Formations, p271.

[7] “First Draft of the Reply to V.I. Zasulich’s Letter”, in Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 3, Moscow, 1977. Hal Draper, in Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Vol. 3, The Politics of Social Classes, New York, 1978, pp432-433, says Marx gave up on the letter because he had difficulty clarifying his position.

[8] Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 3, pp160-161.

[9] V.I. Lenin, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, Moscow, 1977, p180.

[10] ibid., p138.

[11] Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 3, p153.

[12] Quoted in “The Afterword to Soziales Aus Russland”, in Pre-Capitalist Socio-Economic Formations, p481.

[13] ibid., pp477-478.

[14] “Speech at a Meeting of Delegates from the Poor Peasants’ Committees of Central Gubernias, November 8, 1918”, in V.I. Lenin, The Land Question and the Fight for Freedom, Moscow, 1972, p63.

[15] Trainer, Developed to Death, p204.

[16] “First Draft of the Reply to V.I. Zasulich’s Letter”, in Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 3, p157.

[17] Lenin, “On Co-operation”, in The Land Question and the Fight for Freedom, pp144-145.

[18] José Carlos Mariátegui, “The Problem of the Indian”, in Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality, Austin 1971, p24.

[19] José Carlos Mariátegui, “The Problem of Land”, in Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality, p33.

[20] ibid., pp42-45.

[21] Howard Handelman, Struggle in the Andes: Peasant Political Mobilisation in Peru, Austin 1975, p25.

[22] ibid., p27.

[23] ibid., p29.

[24] ibid.

[25] ibid., p198. Lenin went into considerable detail to show that the Russian peasantry was riven with class divisions despite the existence of egalitarian land ownership patterns. The Russian communal village, he argued, was in fact not a bastion of “people’s production” but of petty-bourgeois production. See, in particular, pp175-176 in The Development of Capitalism in Russia.

[26] Handelman, Struggle in the Andes, pp49-58.

[27] ibid., p191.

[28] The Economist, 21 July 1990, p42.

[29] The Economist, 9 December 1989, p46.

[30] Yearbook of Labour Statistics 1980/1985/1987, quoted in James W. Wilke and Enrique Ochoa (eds), Statistical Abstract of Latin America, Vol. 27, Los Angeles 1989.

[31] World Development Report 1987, quoted in Statistical Abstract of Latin America, Vol. 27.

[32] Cuadernos de la CEPAL, quoted in Statistical Abstract of Latin America, Vol. 27.

[33] The Economist, 18 November 1989, p50.

[34] The Economist, 18 August 1990, p36.

[35] Direct Action, 28 August 1990.

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