Marx on the Russian Mir, and misconceptions by Marxists

Marx's 1877 letter to the editor of Otecestvenniye Zapisky refuting the idea that all societies would transition from feudalism to capitalism before communism.

Submitted by Mike Harman on August 13, 2018

libcom editor's note - The idea that Marx proposed a strict progression from feudalism, then to capitalism, then to communism has been one of the strongest myths of Marxism in the 20th Century and is often falsely labeled as 'Historical Materialism'. Marx clarifies in this correspondence that he had only drawn this conclusion from Western Europe, as explicitly stated in Capital. Instead, rather than applying his conclusions from Western Europe to the rest of the world, it would be necessary to apply his method - i.e. an in-depth analysis of history and present social relations.

This productivist interpretation of Marxism had already begun to spread during Marx's lifetime, and here he is responding to one such misrepresentation.

He feels himself obliged to metamorphose my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into an historico-philosophic theory of the marche generale [general path] imposed by fate upon every people, whatever the historic circumstances in which it finds itself, in order that it may ultimately arrive at the form of economy which will ensure, together with the greatest expansion of the productive powers of social labour, the most complete development of man. But I beg his pardon. (He is both honouring and shaming me too much.)

Letter from Marx to Editor of the Otecestvenniye Zapisky

[Notes on the Fatherland]

Dear Sir [M. Ye. Saltykov-Shchedrin],

The author [N. K. Mikhailovsky] of the article Karl Marx Before the Tribunal of M. Shukovsky is evidently a clever man and if, in my account of primitive accumulation, he had found a single passage to support his conclusions he would have quoted it. In the absence of any such passage he finds himself obliged to seize upon an hors d'oeuvre, a sort of polemic against a Russian “literary man,” [Alexander Herzen] published in the postscript of the first German edition of Capital. What is my complaint against this writer there? That he discovered the Russian commune not in Russia but in the book written by Haxthausen, Prussian Counsellor of State, and that in his hands the Russian commune only serves as an argument to prove that rotten old Europe will be regenerated by the victory of pan-Slavism. My estimate of this writer may be right or it may be wrong, but it cannot in any case furnish a clue to my views regarding the efforts “of Russians to find a path of development for their country which will be different from that which Western Europe pursued and still pursues,” etc.

In the postscript to the second German edition of Capital – which the author of the article on M. Shukovsky knows, because he quotes it – I speak of “a great Russian critic and man of learning” [Nikolay Chernyshevsky] with the high consideration he deserves. In his remarkable articles this writer has dealt with the question whether, as her liberal economists maintain, Russia must begin by destroying la commune rurale (the village commune) 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 by developing ses propres donnees historiques [the particular historic conditions already given her]. He pronounces in favour of this latter solution. And my honourable critic would have had at least as much reason for inferring from my consideration for this “great Russian critic and man of learning” that I shared his views on the question, as for concluding from my polemic against the “literary man” and Pan-Slavist that I rejected them.

To conclude, as I am not fond of leaving “something to be guessed,” I will come straight to the point. In order that I might be qualified to estimate the economic development in Russia to-day, I learnt Russian and then for many years studied the official publications and others bearing on this subject. I have arrived at this conclusion: If Russia continues to pursue the path she has followed since 1861, she will lose the finest chance ever offered by history to a nation, in order to undergo all the fatal vicissitudes of the capitalist regime.

The chapter on primitive accumulation does not pretend to do more than trace the path by which, in Western Europe, the capitalist order of economy emerged from the womb of the feudal order of economy. It therefore describes the historic movement which by divorcing the producers from their means of production converts them into wage earners (proletarians in the modern sense of the word) while it converts into capitalists those who hold the means of production in possession. In that history, “all revolutions are epoch-making which serve as levers for the advancement of the capitalist class in course of formation; above all those which, after stripping great masses of men of their traditional means of production and subsistence, suddenly fling them on to the labour market. But the basis of this whole development is the expropriation of the cultivators.

“This has not yet been radically accomplished except in England....but all the countries of Western Europe are going through the same movement,” etc. (Capital, French Edition, 1879, p. 315). At the end of the chapter the historic tendency of production is summed up thus: That it itself begets its own negation with the inexorability which governs the metamorphoses of nature; that it has itself created the elements of a new economic order, by giving the greatest impulse at once to the productive forces of social labour and to the integral development of every individual producer; that capitalist property, resting as it actually does already on a form of collective production, cannot do other than transform itself into social property. At this point I have not furnished any proof, for the good reason that this statement is itself nothing else than the short summary of long developments previously given in the chapters on capitalist production.

Now what application to Russia can my critic [N. K. Mikhailovsky] make of this historical sketch? Only this: If Russia is tending to become a capitalist nation after the example of the Western European countries, and during the last years she has been taking a lot of trouble in this direction – she will not succeed without having first transformed a good part of her peasants into proletarians; and after that, once taken to the bosom of the capitalist regime, she will experience its pitiless laws like other profane peoples. That is all. But that is not enough for my critic. He feels himself obliged to metamorphose my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into an historico-philosophic theory of the marche generale [general path] imposed by fate upon every people, whatever the historic circumstances in which it finds itself, in order that it may ultimately arrive at the form of economy which will ensure, together with the greatest expansion of the productive powers of social labour, the most complete development of man. But I beg his pardon. (He is both honouring and shaming me too much.) Let us take an example.

In several parts of Capital I allude to the fate which overtook the plebeians of ancient Rome. They were originally free peasants, each cultivating his own piece of land on his own account. In the course of Roman history they were expropriated. The same movement which divorced them from their means of production and subsistence involved the formation not only of big landed property but also of big money capital. And so one fine morning there were to be found on the one hand free men, stripped of everything except their labour power, and on the other, in order to exploit this labour, those who held all the acquired wealth in possession. What happened? The Roman proletarians became, not wage labourers but a mob of do-nothings more abject than the former “poor whites” in the southern country of the United States, and alongside of them there developed a mode of production which was not capitalist but dependent upon slavery. Thus events strikingly analogous but taking place in different historic surroundings led to totally different results. By studying each of these forms of evolution separately and then comparing them one can easily find the clue to this phenomenon, but one will never arrive there by the universal passport of a general historico-philosophical theory, the supreme virtue of which consists in being super-historical.

Reproduced from

Written: in French at the end of November 1877;
Source: Marx and Engels Correspondence;
Publisher: International Publishers (1968);
First Published: Gestamtausgabe;
Translated: Donna Torr;
Transcribed: Sally Ryan in 1999;
HTML Markup: Sally Ryan.



2 years 10 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Dyjbas on July 28, 2021

Worth also reading this afterword from Engels, written some 17 years later, on how things played out:

Thus wrote Marx in 1877. At that time there were two governments in Russia: the Tsar’s and that of the secret executive committee (ispolnitel'nyj komitet) of the terrorist conspirators. The power of this secret second government grew daily. The fall of tsardom seemed imminent; a revolution in Russia was bound to deprive the entire forces of European reaction of its mainstay, its great reserve army, and thus give the political movement of the West a mighty new impulse and, what is more, infinitely more favourable conditions in which to operate. No wonder that Marx advises the Russians to be in less of a hurry to make the leap into capitalism.

The Russian revolution did not come. Tsardom got the better of terrorism, which even managed to drive all the propertied, “law-abiding” classes back into its arms for the time being. And in the seventeen years which have elapsed since that letter was written both capitalism and the dissolution of the peasant commune have made tremendous headway in Russia. So how do matters stand today, in 1894?

When the old tsarist despotism continued unchanged after the defeats of the Crimean War and the suicide of Tsar Nicholas, only one road was open: the swiftest transition possible to capitalist industry. The army had been destroyed by the gigantic dimensions of the empire, on the long marches to the theatre of war; the distances had to be nullified by a strategic railway network. But railways mean capitalist industry and the revolutionising of primitive agriculture. For one thing, the agricultural produce of even the remotest areas is brought into direct contact with the world market; for another, an extensive railway system cannot be constructed and kept working without domestic industry to supply rails, locomotives, rolling stock, etc. But it is not possible to introduce one branch of large-scale industry without accepting the entire system; the textile industry on a relatively modern footing, which had already taken root both in the region of Moscow and Vladimir and on the Baltic coasts, received fresh impetus. The railways and factories were accompanied by the expansion of existing banks and the establishment of new ones; the emancipation of the peasants from serfdom instituted freedom of movement, in anticipation of the ensuing automatic emancipation of a large proportion of these peasants from landownership too. Thus in a short while all the foundations of the capitalist mode of production were laid in Russia. But the axe had also been taken to the root of the Russian peasant commune.

To lament this fact now is futile. Had the despotism of the tsars been replaced after the Crimean War by the direct parliamentary rule of nobles and bureaucrats, the process might have been slowed down somewhat; if the burgeoning bourgeoisie had taken the helm, it would certainly have been accelerated even more. As things were, there was no alternative. Alongside the Second Empire in France and the most brilliant rise of capitalist industry in England, it could really not be demanded of Russia that it plunge headlong into state-socialist experiments on account of the peasant commune. Something had to happen. What was possible under the circumstances did happen, as everywhere and always in countries engaged in commodity production, in most cases only semiconsciously or quite mechanically, and without knowing what was being done.

Now came the new age of revolution from above initiated by Germany, and hence the age of the rapid growth of socialism in all European countries. Russia took part in the general movement. There it took the form — as if it went without saying — of an assault aimed to bring about the fall of tsarist despotism, to attain intellectual and political freedom of action for the nation. A faith in the miraculous power of the peasant commune to bring about a social renaissance — a faith for which Chernyshevsky, as we have seen, was not entirely blameless — this faith played its part in heightening the enthusiasm and energy of the heroic Russian pioneers. We do not blame the people, scarcely more than a few hundred in number, who through their selfless devotion and heroism brought tsarist absolutism to the point where it was forced to consider the possibility and the conditions of surrender — we do not blame them for regarding their Russian compatriots as the chosen people of the social revolution. But this does not mean we need to share their illusion. The age of chosen peoples is gone for ever.

But during this struggle capitalism went from strength to strength in Russia and increasingly achieved what terrorism was unable to do: to force tsardom to surrender.


One thing is clear: in these circumstances the fledgling Russian bourgeoisie has the state completely in its power. In all economic matters of importance the state must do its bidding. If for the time being the bourgeoisie continues to put up with the despotic autocracy of the Tsar and his officials, it is only because this autocracy, mitigated as it is by the venality of the bureaucracy offers it more guarantees than would changes even of a bourgeois-liberal nature, whose consequences no one could foresee, given the present internal situation in Russia. And so the transformation of the country into a capitalist industrial nation, the proletarianisation of a large proportion of the peasantry and the decay of the old communistic commune proceeds at an ever quickening pace.

Whether enough of this commune has been saved so that, if the occasion arises, as Marx and I still hoped in 1882, it could become the point of departure for communist development in harmony with a sudden change of direction in Western Europe, I do not presume to say. But this much is certain: if a remnant of this commune is to be preserved, the first condition is the fall of tsarist despotism — revolution in Russia. This will not only tear the great mass of the nation, the peasants, away from the isolation of their villages, which comprise their “mir”, their “world”, and lead them out onto the great stage, where they will get to know the outside world and thus themselves, their own situation and the means of salvation from their present distress; it will also give the labour movement of the West fresh impetus and create new, better conditions in which to carry on the struggle, thus hastening the victory of the modern industrial proletariat, without which present-day Russia can never achieve a socialist transformation, whether proceeding from the commune or from capitalism.


1 year 2 months ago

Submitted by adri on March 25, 2023

Just to note, I added names to all the people Marx alludes to in the letter; it seems he intentionally made the letter a bit cryptic in order to avoid Russian censors. The letter is reproduced in the MECW Vol. 24, which gives the names of all the people in the footnotes. I've also attached a copy of the letter as it appears in the MECW, along with a page of endnotes that goes with the text (so if you wanna remove the other pdf, you probably can).

If anyone's interested, there was also a pretty good text recently on Monthly Review that touches on Marx and Engels' Russian writings.


1 year 2 months ago

Submitted by adri on March 25, 2023

It's also worth noting that it seems that Marx never actually sent this letter; Engels, according to Teodor Shanin, discovered the manuscript of the letter after Marx's death. (This might be what the endnote in the MECW is referring to when it says the letter was never "posted," or "mailed" in correct English—kidding!) Nonetheless, Marx and Engels express their optimism towards the Russian mir in many other places, such as Marx's letter (which he actually sent) to Zasulich:

Marx wrote: The analysis in Capital therefore provides no reasons either for or against the vitality of the Russian commune. But the special study I have made of it, including a search for original source­ material, has convinced me that the commune is the fulcrum for social regeneration in Russia. But in order that it might function as such, the harmful influences assailing it on all sides must first be eliminated, and it must then be assured the normal conditions for spontaneous development.