Russian Historian Paul Miliukov on State and Society in 1905:
the Historical Roots of European Liberalism

Alan Kimball

<>Paul Miliukov (1859-1943) was the leading organizer and ideologist of Russian liberalism from before the 1905 Revolution until his withdrawal from active politics after the Russian Revolutions of 1917 and the Civil War. He was a founder of the Constitutional Democratic Party and represented it in the Third and Fourth State Dumas. During the Great War he most boldly asserted the program of the Progressive Bloc within the Duma, particularly in the last months of the old regime [SAC site]. The February Revolution elevated him briefly to the position of Foreign Minister in the Provisional Government in the spring of 1917. After the October 1917 Soviet Revolution he was an active participant in the "white" movement against the Bolsheviks.

<>Miliukov was also an eminent Russian historian. He carefully studied the record of the Russian past searching for the causes and solutions of his nation's woe. Lectures delivered in the United States in 1903 and 1904 served as the basis for his most ambitious effort to combine historical with political analysis, Russia and Its Crisis, originally published in 1905. The work is at one and the same time a political manifesto, condemning the Russian state and outlining a better political future, and a scholarly analysis of Russian history. It was written in the glad expectation of victory in his homeland, two decades before his political career ended in defeat. In the fourth chapter, "The Political Tradition," Miliukov summarized, consolidated, and generalized on what had by his time become for the Russian political opposition a standard image of the Russian past.

<>True to that standard image, Miliukov placed Russian history into a comparative, one might say global, historical context. The critical crossroad in global history appeared to be when early tribal societies created the state. At this junction, some states became recognizably "feudal," others did not. The political fate of whole civilizations hinged on which historical road they took out of earliest tribal existence. Those civilizations that created great landed estates before the state consolidated its power became feudal; those that did not, became something else. "The building of the great landlords' estates thus may be called the inner spring of development from a tribal to a feudal organization of society."{_{ Paul Miliukov, Russia and its Crisis (New York City: 1962), p. 107. Subsequent parenthetical page references in the text.}_} States have emerged out of tribal society in the absence of this "inner spring," but they were not typical feudal states, perhaps not feudal states at all.

<>In those non-feudal states "outward political elements," particularly war and commerce, did the work of the missing landlords to form different sorts of states. (107) Miliukov had little to say about commerce but much to say about war. War was an "outward cause" of transition from tribal organization to a distinctly centralized state system, characterized by state ownership and administration rather than social ownership and public administration. Miliukov thus became one of the early critics of something like "military/industrial" states. Here are his words:

Thence the retarded development of the feudal state comes to be quite different from that in typical lands of medieval feudality. The representatives of political power take the place that the local landlords had failed to take possession of; and they do so by owning the common grounds and wastes, by holding the state offices in their own hands--in short, by taking possession, as far as they can, of the superior ownership of the entire domain and the overlord rights. (108)

<>Miliukov was not always clear in this matter. At a minimum, he questioned whether the term "feudalism" ought to be applied to state systems that have not evolved from, and remained on the whole dependent upon, a landowning aristocracy. At a maximum, he suggested that there are significantly different sorts of feudalism, determined by whether the state emerged out of, and to meet the needs of, a landed aristocracy or whether, in reverse, an aristocracy emerged out of, and to meet the needs of, an administrative/military state.

<>It may not be so much a problem of clarity as it is of complexity. Even those states formed out of tribal society by the "outward political elements" typically created at a later date some semblance of a landed aristocracy. In these cases, however, the aristocracy was merely a tardy mimic of a real patrimonial aristocracy. Aristocracies of this sort were not the product of the true "inner spring" of history.

Under these [latter] conditions the social process of development of the landed aristocracy is postponed. It becomes a secondary result of a previous political development; i.e., the building of an aristocracy is in a large degree dependent on the policy of the rulers, instead of being able to influence and to modify this very policy. (108)

<>The final result both of the "inner" and of the "outward" processes were therefore superficially the same. Whichever route from tribal to state organization taken, a landholding elite appeared on the scene, either early and independently or late and dependently. The inner process began with landholders, the outward process resulted in landholders. In those regions which experienced the "outward process," the elite who received land from the state for military service became landed proprietors, but under conditions defined by the state and in a sequence which appeared to Miliukov to reverse the more natural historical process. The reversed sequence imparted a quite different character to public life, particularly in the Orient. In the east, said Miliukov, the landed aristocracy was formed out of military servitors after the original aim of the military organization had been achieved. This happened as a result of conquest, as in Turkey after the Ottoman defeat of Byzantium, or because the national state was founded prior to the formation of an aristocracy, as in Russia in the Muscovite period, or after foreign conquerors transformed military landholders into landed proprietors, e.g., the English in India and the French in Algiers. (118)

<>Clearly Miliukov thought that European feudalism was the natural paradigm of proper state formation, and he considered all other routes from "tribal" to state organization faulty variations on history's own preferred model. The "inner spring" implied a more natural evolution, a more local organization of local interest, and reliance on social rather than administrative forces. For Miliukov, the "inner spring" was so far the only satisfactory historical route to the sort of liberal social and political arrangement that his ideology sought to realize for Russia. Apparently only western Europe took that happy interior route to modernism. As one moves east, one discovers alloyed, hybrid and altogether deviant variations on the west European pattern.

<>Miliukov thought that the oriental system of land grants to a warrior class originated in the sixth century when Persia clashed with Byzantium. Khosrau I Anushirvan (531-79), the Persian ruler of the Sassanid Dynasty, first used the system against the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (527-65). Byzantium was forced to imitate. Later rulers continued to develop this form of state military service and conditional land tenure. The Ottoman Timar and Zi'amet were replicated or mimicked in the Byzantine pronoia. Byzantine influence spread to the north, into Slavic regions. (118-119) Under this and other influences, Russia's historical development consequently followed a faulty "outward" model:

Now, as we have said, the farther east we go in Europe, the slower is the process by which society becomes aristocratic and feudal. We know, then, what we have to expect from the study of early social development and political institutions in Russia. A long-protracted tribal existence, an undeveloped territorial aristocracy, a political power coming from without and easily appropriating the overlord rights over land, a class of officials [NB! use of the word class in this institutional setting] that gathers around and derives its further claims from its position of king's servants--such are the particular features of the Russian feudal state. With all these peculiarities, the state that is being so formed already bears within itself the germ of the future autocracy; but this germ is first developed when the central power assumes military functions, in the process of political unification. (108)

<>Thus Russia lacked the "inner springs" of historical development, and the particular "outward cause" of its development was war. Miliukov questioned whether Russian historical development had anything at all to do with feudalism proper:

We saw that whole aristocratic elements were generally lacking in Russian social life, they were, comparatively speaking, more lacking in the northern type than in the southern. Also, we saw that political power, which was generally stronger in eastern than in western Europe, was comparatively stronger in the north than in the south of Russia, and that here it assumed the form of a general proprietorship over the whole territory. And because of these characteristics of northern Russia--a weaker development of the aristocracy and a stronger development of the central power--the question arose whether this intermediate stage between tribe and state still has anything in common with the feudalism of western Europe. (116)

<>The lessons of east European history were not comforting for the liberal. Miliukov noticed that Lithuanian and Polish territories nurtured the growth of aristocratic traditions much like west European traditions and very contrary to Muscovite traditions. Much the same military needs that had kept back development of feudalism and aristocracy in Russia led to a "complete development of the feudal elements in Lithuania and helped aristocracy to its fullest development." (119) One might expect that to be the cause of great good fortune for those two peoples, but the result was defeat.

There was formed, for instance, a compact class of landed aristocracy, which by the privilege granted in the year 1447, finally emancipated itself from royal taxation and justice, and so made it necessary for the state power in each separate case to ask the lords, by dint of summoning them to a national council, to share in the military contributions and to serve in the military service. [...] Thus the Lithuanian and western Russian baronage encroached on the rights of their kings, just as the Polish baronage had done aforetime.

The consequence was that the central power became too weak to organize an effective defense of the country at the very time when such a defense was particularly necessary. [...] Having got whatever social and political privileges they wished, the barons did not for that become any the more attentive to the state necessities. The feudal type of state in western Russia and Lithuania was, therefore, obliged to yield to the Muscovite type, which was at that time reconstructed after a more oriental fashion. (117)

<>The lessons of history are illusive indeed. Just as we are about to conclude that happiness for human civilizations might come only from having taken the "inner" rather than the "outward" course to modern statehood, we are sobered by the tale of Russia’s defeat of Poland and Lithuania. Defeat at the hands of "oriental" Muscovy pointedly reminded Miliukov that historical discourse need not be melodrama and can often be tragedy.

<>Furthermore this historical discourse is very complex:

The Muscovite prince had no feudal elements to contend with; therefore he took his lessons in politics from the Byzantine empire, from the southern Slavic states on the Balkans, perhaps even from [117-118] Turkey, rather than from Poland or western Europe. There, on the confines of Europe and Asia on the Bosporus, the capital problem of a standing army was resolved almost as in medieval Europe: lacking money to give, the state distributed its land among the warriors. (117-118)

<>With an historical origin of fundamentally a different sort, the Muscovite state in the end came to look a great deal like its west European cousins. But the Russian state became in the final instance the owner of all its domain. Historically even heritable property in land, held by the servitor aristocracy, was considered temporary and conditional. If a representative of a rural social formation, the free peasants who owned land (smerdy), died without heirs, "his holding was inherited by the prince of the land; the prince was considered to be the superior owner of the whole territory and immediate owner of the unoccupied lands." (110) "Dependent military tenure of the oriental states was always founded on the idea of the superior property rights of the prince in the whole land; without this idea of overlordship no grants from the state lands were possible." (120)

<>About Russia Miliukov seems clear: without the prior development of a landed aristocracy out of which the state might emerge, then there is no feudalism. Even when the state eventually created a landed elite through the distribution of territory and holdings gained through war and expropriation, its creation bore only superficial resemblance to true feudalism.

<>That being so, the great Russian Empress Catherine II came on the scene too late. Long before her time, Russia took the "outward" route to statehood. It was not now possible to navigate the "inner" route. [Reminder of Miliukov's meaning] Catherine exerted herself in that direction when she tried to form a heritable landowning aristocracy [SAC site]. She admired Enlightenment thinkers, and she sought to win a place of honor for herself among them. But Miliukov thought she failed to grasp the larger argument of a figure like Montesquieu [SAC] and did not grasp the essential restraints of her nation's own history:

There was, however, as we have seen, no feudalism and not much of a nobility in Russia. But those social orders might be formed anew on the European pattern; and Catherine proceeded to form such privileged orders as Montesquieu wished. [...] A self-government of the nobility was begun in the country, recalling the provincial estates of France, or the land diets of Germany. Now that [131-132] the pouvoirs intermédiaires of Montesquieu--the "intermediate powers" between the people and the throne--were created in the provincial government and in the social composition, a "true monarchy" could be realized in Russia, as a political form quite opposed to an oriental "despotism." But in order to achieve this liberal transformation, should not a "true monarchy" be organized as a "limited" one?

From the very beginning this logical issue did not seem to be grasped by Catherine. [...] For so long as there is no representation there can be no regular legislation. This is the unvarnished truth, which the subsequent practice of Russian political institutions did not fail to confirm, and which a whole century of persecution has not been able to eradicate from public opinion in Russia. (131-132)

<>Here we are very close to the heart of Miliukov's political credo. Russian history failed to produce a politically vital aristocracy. Even when the Russian aristocracy was favored with privileges, for example in the dramatic edicts of Catherine, it received no meaningful political rights. It was in no sense a ruling class. The contrast with the west European political tradition was stark.

In all these [Russian historical] cases the appropriation of state lands by private owners did not lead to the feudal organization of society, because the central power was already too strong to be dispossessed of its superior rights in the land. It was quite opposite with the feudal aristocracy of western Europe, which preceded the development of a central administration, and thus succeeded in overpowering the state. (118)

<>A thing which Miliukov rather loosely termed "the public" had to make up for the deficiency of Russian history. The public had to substitute for the aristocracy as a Russian equivalent of Montesquieu's pouvoirs intermédiaires between the crown and the folk. His liberalism was founded on the assumption or hope that an aroused public opinion and civic activism could offer pointed political resistance to central authority. The Russian aristocracy gave all appearances of being a European aristocracy, but that was on the surface. They had none of the necessary historical stuff in them to achieve what was, for the west European aristocracy, their great historical legacy. That task then fell to a different social formation in Russia. Miliukov called them "the public." We more often call them "the intelligentsia" [ID].

<>As we look back at Miliukov's career after he wrote Russia and Its Crisis (i.e., from 1905 until his death in 1943) and over more than a half century of further Russian historical experience (up to our own time), we can identify one of the most painful weaknesses in his analysis. He concentrated too narrowly on only one feudal class, the aristocracy. Thus he could not understand that west European and Russian history created not only particular forms of aristocracy but particular social structures from top to bottom. The future he was ready to fight for required more than a progressive aristocracy or progressive learned or trained elite. As he toured the USA, his lectures implied that the representatives of the new but miniscule Russian "public" were fully capable of pulling Russia out of its historical bog. His discourse was tragedy, not melodrama, but strangely he seemed never to have fully realized that fact until long after the two periods of miserable failure of his political factions, in 1906 and 1917.

<>Miliukov failed to see the broadest implications of his own idealized historical formula: In this idealized western Europe, society grew strong before the state. As a result, the state was the creature of society. Liberalism was nourished by deep historical roots in a whole, complex social structure. In Russia, the state grew strong before society. As a result, society--not just aristocrats and the modern "public" but the population as a whole--was the creature of the state. Liberalism had no natural roots in Russian history. It withered on the vine.

<>Miliukov’s questions must be put differently in the post-Soviet period: Did a more thoroughgoing "public" evolve under Soviet rule? Give his idealized model, western Europe, a closer critical examination. Has the phenomenon "public" not deteriorated even in post-feudal western Europe in the aftermath of two suicidal world wars, a half century of military/industrial competition called "the Cold War", and the latest "New World [Dis-] Order"? In short, what has been the fate of those social structures that Miliukov one century ago considered the feudal "inner spring" of European progress? If this frame of reference is not as certain as in Miliukov's time, what is? Are there other "inner springs" of democratic, liberal political/social/economic forms useful where the feudal legacy has deteriorated, as in certain regions of that small peninsula of peninsulas called "Europe", or has never existed, as in the rest of the wide world?