Karl Marx's Russian Books

Some of Karl Marx's Russian Sources,
Especially Bervi [Flerovsky] and
the Russian Section of the First International

A Draft Conspectus
of selected passages from Boris Nikolaevskii's
“Russkie knigi v bibliotekakh K. Marksa i F. Engel'sa”
in Arkhiv K. Marksa i F. Engel'sa, vol. 4 (MVA-LGR:1929):355-423.

© Alan Kimball
December 1987
for students of Russian political culture

Marx began the study of Russian in the fall of 1869. He wished to read Bervi [Flerovskii], Polozhenie rabochego klassa v Rossii [Condition of the working class in Russia]. [368: page numbers in brackets, without any source indication, usually at the end of a paragraph, refer to the page number in Nikolaevskii's article above. Later page numbers by themselves in parenthesis will be references to the page numbers in the 1869 edition of Bervi's book. There are a few phrases in double brackets “[[ ]]” which are rare interjections by SAC editor.]

*1869no29:Marx wrote Kugelmann: “I started to study the Russian language in response to the fact that a book on the condition of the working classes in Russia (of course, including the peasant here also) was sent to me from Peterburg.” [369]

Above all else, Marx was interested in the question of Russian agrarian relations. Marx planned to devote a lot of attention to Russia in the final volumes of Das Kapital. In the sections that dealt with the evolution of agrarian relations of production, he planned to give Russian agrarian relations the same place he had given English market-economic relations in the first volume, which dealt with the evolution of commercial capitalism. [370]

His Russian study went quickly. He started not with Bervi but with Herzen's “Prison and Exile”, a chapter from the memoirs Byloe i dumy [My past and thoughts]. He took up the very copy that Engels had read when he started his study of Russian many years before. At the end Marx wrote, in English, “Finished 9 January 1870”. [369]

Marx moved then directly to the study of Bervi. This book presented many difficulties: heaviness, unusual words, and special terms, all of which required frequent reference to a dictionary. Still, he read quickly. By 10 February 1870 he had completed 180 pages. [[For some measure of what Marx was learning, see 1870fe17:Mrx-Kugelmann.]]

*1870mr24:Mrx-Russian Section of the International, Marx spoke of the book as if he had finished reading it. [369]

Marx left many marks and notes in his copy of Bervi. On the basis of these, we can follow very closely his impressions as he read this book. [372]

*1870fe10:Marx wrote a letter to Engels expressing his general assessment, after reading the first 150 pages. “This is the first work in which the truth about Russian communism is expressed.... I have never had much of an impression of this communist Eldorado, but Flerovskii [Bervi] has exceeded all expectation.” [372]

*1870mr24:Marx wrote a letter to the Russian Section of the First International =

The work by Flerovskii is a real discovery for Europe [[of course Marx should have written “the rest of Europe”]]. Russian optimism which has been put about on the continent even by so called revolutionists, has been mercilessly exposed in this work. The virtues of the book are not diminished if I say that it is in several places not fully up to critical standards, from the purely scholarly point of view. This is a work of a serious observer, a dispassionate laborer, and an impartial critic, a powerful artist, etc.... [372]

Marx especially valued the factual information in the book, all of which undermined the “Russian optimism” on the question of the condition of Russian peasants and workers. The book of Bervi [372/3] was divided into chapters which represent the regions visited by the author. The author described the economic condition and daily life circumstances of “workers” in Siberia and the steppes, on the Astrakhan shores of the Caspian Sea, and other regions.... He took the term rabotnik [worker] to have the widest possible meaning. He included the peasant ploughman, the craftsman [kustaria-svetelochnik], and the petty déclassé hired hand [meshchanin].... Proletariat per se, the wage laborer in the factories and mills, interested Bervi less. It is noteworthy that he did not at all deal with the question of the workers of the capital cities, but in the Sixties, when the book was written, the “hereditary proletariat” [wage laborers whose father and/or mother had been wage laborers] hardly existed even there. [373]

But this suited Marx's interests perfectly, since he was seeking information about Russian agrarian relationships. He hungrily devoured the "facts in Bervi's book (though we now [1929] know that not all of Bervi's “facts” were objectively facts at all). In each chapter he carefully underlined all typical characteristics of the condition of the given category of “workers” in the given region: how tiring the work is, material condition, conditions of food and housing, taxation, administrative and police oppression, the dark side of the “patriarchal ways” of workers' lives. [373]

Interesting that Marx very closely studied all of the details of family and daily life [vsemi semeino-bytovymi detaliami]. He was particularly interesting in the question of the position of the women in the family. Injustice, wife beating, heavy work, primitive and crude depravity -- Bervi described it all, and Marx took careful note. He was clearly collecting material to illustrate the condition which Bervi [54] described in the following way (and which Marx underlined): “The unlimited authority of the husband over wife and household destroys the family.” A Marx letter to Engels mentions this side of the book [Briefwechsel 4:241; Nikolaevskii:373]

Bervi [60-1] described the exploitation of child labor, for example in the form of false apprenticeship which pretended to be instruction but was really only a source of free labor. Marx carefully noted this, placing double exclamation points in the margin. On the same page of Bervi [61] Marx placed “!!” by the story of an impoverished Tomsk tailor. Bervi's words =

Let no one think after this that exploitation and soul-wrenching poverty are the exclusive domain of the cities and industrial centers in the thickly populated nations. Across the vast tracts of Siberia it is [sic] to be found in thousands of different varieties and forms, some known and some unknown to Europe. [373]

In the chapter about "workers beyond the Urals Marx's attention was especially drawn to Bervi's [76-7] description of the relationships among several groups of peasants with various forms of landholding and cultivation, and the class struggle in the countryside. The text on these pages is almost wholly underlined by Marx. Marx additionally placed an exclamation point beside the phrase: “the immense influence, which the rich peasants have on the community [obshchestvo] gives them the opportunity to control the best lands in the community.” [374]

Re. Bervi's chapter on the condition of the workers in northern European Russia [94], Marx called the system whereby the laborers were paid with produce rather than money “Truck-system!” employing the English term. [374]

Marx placed a question-mark by Bervi's analysis [109-110] of why the Russian American Co. relinquished its Alaska holdings. On the same page, Marx added a “?!” to Bervi's explanation of the resettlement of Olonets peasants. Many a “!” graces Bervi’s [110-11] version of Gimerovskii on economic conditions in Novgorod Province. Peasants experience shortages of heating fuel and lumber, despite the fact that lumber was at that time one of the main export items from that province. The same marks were affixed to these words of Bervi (122):

There are few fish in the White Sea, and that's why the fisheries there are under obshchina [peasant commune] jurisdiction. There are more fish in the Caspian sea, and therefore it is wholly in the hands of capitalists.

Then there were more “!!” when Bervi (190) described how peasants in the Don Cossack region pay money dues to their landlords [obrok; quit rent] which are 40 times the rent-value of the land. Ditto next to a table (197) which showed that the growth of the peasant population was greater in those provinces where gentry landlordism was less well developed. [374]

Bervi [238, top] illustrated the great abundance of land in the trans-Volga region with five lines which Marx decorated with more than one “!”:

An obshchina with vast lands, in which the cultivator is not able to work all the land that belongs to him, is so common [?? check the quote hereafter = ] that the boundaries are simply the areas around the ponds and ploughlands, all the remaining land is left up for grabs. A member of the obshchina may plough and mow it, or with the agreement of the community [obshchestvo] he may rent it out, if he finds a taker.

Bervi (251) got the same mark when he showed that in Saratov Province, where the urban population was comparatively high and the rural comparatively low, and “because of the greater proximity of the market (Marx double-underlined these last words in quotes), for these reasons prices for agricultural products were significantly higher than in other places”. [374]

Marx gives “!!!” to Bervi’s (255-6) observation about uniform measure of money payment to “workers in various reaches of the country, despite the great difference in the cost of bread in these places”. Single “!” to Bervi’s (277) long paragraph in which he describes “family despotism”. Ditto Bervi (485) on how gentry landowners gave to peasants the least productive, worse land as allotments. [375]

Other sorts of Marx notes on Bervi were comments on his manner of thought, or theory. When Marx mentioned Bervi in letters to the Russian Section and Engels, he gave only a positive evaluation of Bervi. He treated Bervi's handling of the national question in an ironic way, but he was mild: “As a good Russian....” [Briefw. 4:244]. This is in contrast to the sharp critique that fills the margin's of Marx's copy. This may be because the letters to Engels (fe10 and fe12) were written as he had reached only p. 150. The critical theoretical sections were later. [[ This may also be because Marx indulged an embarrassing Russophobia in his private marginal notations but restrained it in correspondence.]] In general, Marx was unhappy with Proudhon's influence on Bervi, and even here Marx thought Bervi did not properly understand Proudhon. When Bervi [67] says that the economic fate of workers was tied to the ups and downs of trade, Marx wrote “Erreur!” [375]

Bervi's (289) judgment on the changes that would have to be made in the relationship between capitalists and workers was accompanied by effort on part of Bervi to convince obshchestvo (society) that

the worker is not a horse, he is not a creature of a lower nature. He is a person, just as the capitalist is a person. Between him and the capitalist there must be equal- [375/6] ity. But equality up to the present has not been possible so long as wages exist, so long as the capitalist and the worker are employer and hireling and not comrades, so long as workers are not themselves owners of the products of factories like the capitalist.

Marx underlined the word “comrades” and wrote: “Die alte Illusion!” [The old illusion]. [375-6]

On the next page (290) Bervi again used the term “comrade” in the discussion of what the situation of the worker would be if he were “not a hireling, but a comrade of the capitalist-gold merchant”. Marx wrote: “D[as] ist d[ie] Grundsauce v[on] Proudhon etc!” Shortly thereafter Bervi (295) wrote that “slavery was abolished and gave place to wage labor. Wage labor must give place to comradeship.” Marx reacted: “Nonsens”. Bervi continued to use the term. On p. 300 he suggested that the work of the capitalist could be “purified” if the capitalist would enter into “comradeship” with workers and share profits with them. Marx more forcefully wrote: “Von d alten Proudhon etc... Eselei!” [From the old Proudhon etc....Asininity!]

A few lines earlier Bervi wrote that

socialists of Western Europe act like fish on ice when they deal with the question of the working class. They are unable to understand that in the highest degree it is unjust that those things produced by capital and labor become the property of capital alone.

Marx wrote simply: “Esel!” There is yet one more Marx comment on this page. Bervi said that “revolution can decide the question of power, but not of market value” and, that being so, then “the prohibition of wage labor will settle between them [i.e., between proletarians and capitalists] the question of power and will open the question of the market value of capital”. In response to the words “prohibition of wage labor” Marx wrote: “Schőne Phantasie! Verbot d[er] Lohnarbeit mit Erlaubness der Kapitalisten!” [A beautiful fantasy! Forbid wage labor with the blessing of capitalists!] [376]

In connection with that series of comments, Marx had much to say about Bervi's lack of familiarity with the situation in Western Europe. Marx reacted against a naive, “old-populist” style remark of Bervi which idealized the outlaw (the Robin Hood syndrome), mixing outlawry with the development of workers movement in England: “up to our own day England has not ceased to be the nation with the bravest thieves and outlaws”. These and other such comments inspired Marx to write, “Dies alles Phantasiengeschwätz!” [All this is fantastic babble] [376]

Bervi (346-8) argued for a close connection between the efficiency of a nation’s productive power and its general welfare and health. He asserted that the West was productive and healthy, whereas the Russian nation was poor and sick. In response to this, Marx criticized Bervi’s exaggerated “Westernism”: “Il faudrait connaître les détails!” [He must familiarize himself with the details!] A little later Bervi (349) suggested that Russians “educated in the school of serfdom” were especially unrestrained in their exploitation of labor, driving it into poverty solely for their own benefit. Marx wrote, “et Messieurs les Anglais!” [and those English gents!] [377]

In the opposite direction, Marx rejected the slightest hints of Slavophilism in Bervi. He laughed gently about this in the “good Russian” letter (above), but in the margins of the book, he was considerably sharper. Bervi (120) said, “We would do well to remember that we have before us two paths: one leads us to the head of civilization, the other prepares us for the fate of India, China, Spain.” Reacting to the italicized phrase, Marx wrote: “?!? Wie heisst?” [?!? what is this called?]

Later (151) Marx underlined the following passage: “In international affairs, the main support we have can only be the sympathy shown us by the Slavs and Greeks.” A bit later Bervi wrote:

If the Slavic nations see that our policies with respect to Ukrainians [malorossam] consists in raising them up and giving significance to their nationality, they will turn their gaze our way with hope. They must know that we do not wish to be only trustees or fathers, but to be older brothers of the Slavs; We must become equal, loving brothers who share the same thought: to make our brothers happy, to give them some significance.

The italicized phrases were underlined by Marx, and he responded in lower Saxon dialect, saying: “!Solche Brieder műsse wer hawe: Die versaufe!” [(?translation?) !Such brothers we all should have: drunkards!] [377]

In the final chapter, Bervi wrote (473) of a “great idea” which he thought Russia must be the first to realize, the union of all classes of society.

There can be no doubt that not only our Slavic neighbors but the whole world would turn an atten- [377/388] tive and loving gaze on us, if it saw that here both the higher and lower strata [sloi] of obshchestvo are striving for the same goal and will discover happiness on the same path, if it received a palpable demonstration from our experience that division into social classes is not a natural inevitability, but that it is an artificial product of its civilization.

Underlining the italicized passage, and decorating it with “!” as he went, Marx wrote in the margin: “Ho, Ho!” [378]

On the same page, Bervi claimed that at the end of the 18th c. Europe was not very far advanced of Russia. Marx put “!!?” in the margin. The same mark was attached to the remark (476) that “our peasantry express incomparably more tact and health of sentiment than the West European”; and that the West European rural proletariat would find it difficult to engage in real peasant work since it “was no laughing matter; one must acclimate and become accustomed to it over many years”.

About Russian obshchina [commune] landholding, Bervi said that it was

an embryo [zarodysh] of that obshchina and artel life from which the West European proletariat has, to his great misfortune, become absolutely estranged. [[The artel' is a cooperative workshop.]]

Marx responded: “??” [378]

Bervi wrote:

In order to understand that the worker can be a fully educated person and can live a peaceful life, one need only consider that from Saturday evening to Monday morning he has 36 hours; if of these he devotes only 6 to serious study, then he could read sixteen thousand pages a year: This is fully enough both for learning and for a peaceful life.

Marx in the margin responded: “C'est sérieusement naif!” [This is seriously naive] [378]

Marx's library shows that he took the subject of Russian agrarian relations very seriously. [[Russia, in a sense, provided his only close encounter with old agrarian conditions of production. The British Museum Library gave him all he needed to write about Das Kapital; now Bervi and other Russians were providing him material for an expansion of his vast political-economic analysis, from the urban and newly industrialized world of northwestern European market economics and out into the much wider, much older Eurasian countryside.]]

Marx studied the condition and the historical development of Russian agrarian relationships since the time of the emancipation in 1861. He paid particular attention to the origins of the obshchina, reading not only Beliaev (Krest'iane na Rusi [Peasantry in Russia]) and Semevskii (Krest'iane v tsarstvovanie Ekateriny II [Peasantry in the Reign of Catherine II]), but also Sergeevich (Veche i kniaz' [The Urban Assembly and the Prince]) and Sokolovskii (Ocherk istorii sel'skokhoziaistvennoi obshchiny [Brief History of the Agricultural Obshchina]).

He studied the history of peasant movements which arose in protest against serfdom. He had Mordovtsev's book, but there are no marks in the book that would prove he read it; perhaps Mordovtsev was not scholarly enough for Marx. Marx also was interested in the artel, in the “artel principle” and the “artel spirit” as a unique characteristic of “Holy Russia”. He studied the very important Sbornik materialov ob arteliakh v Rossii [Collection of materials on the artels in Russia] and his marginal notes make it clear that he was fully up to date for his time on these questions. He knew not only the secondary works of analysis, but he studied the collections of dry data, sometimes published in the remote provinces like Yaroslavl, Tver, and Arkhangel. [370]

Marx followed not only scholarly but also radical discussions of the obshchina. For example, Marx's notebooks contain excerpts with German translation from the article on the obshchina in the radical journal Nachalo [Beginning or Principle], no. 3 (1878). [370]

Unfortunately, there is relatively little on the two most important [[sic]] figures in the Russian revolutionary movements of the 1870s, Bakunin and Lavrov. [See Letopis' marksizma, no. 2 (on Bakunin, edited by D. Riazanov) and no. 4 (on Lavrov, edited by I. Luppol)]. [370-1]

[[Marx's reading of Nikolai Chernyshevskii is discussed in Shanin, Late Marx..., so that section of Nikolaevskii's article is not here conspected.]]

It would be extremely interesting to establish a chronological record of Marx's reading of Russian books. We know that his views on Russia, [[and on agrarian conditions of production in general]], experienced major change in the 1870s. Some milestones in this change are clear: The remark about “Kalmyk blood” in the 6th chapter of the 1st edition of Das Kapital is starkly contrasted with the careful remarks on the obshchina in the famous letter to the editor of Otechestvennye zapiski and even clearer in the letter to Zasulich. Unfortunately, we cannot currently [1929] create such a chronological list. [378]

He did read the journal Kolokol [The bell] under Bakunin and Nechaev; also Narodnoe delo [The people's cause] under Utin and the Russian Section. [379]

Marx's copy of *1870my07:Narodnoe delo#2 shows that he carefully read the major programmatic article of the Russian Section of the First International, “Krest'ianskaia reforma i obshchinnoe zemlevladenie” [Peasant reform and obshchina landholding]. It is clear that at this time Marx did not feel very close to Utin's point of view, certainly there is no way to speak, not quite yet in any event, of Utin's influence on Marx. When the author of the article wrote that “for the consolidation of the rule of landlords [gospodstva barstva] as a caste, the proletariat had to be created where there was none”, Marx [[without expressing any particular reaction to the word “kasta” (caste)]] wrote “Asinus!” [379]

The author of the programmatic article felt that the obshchina was a defense against the future misfortune of artificial proletarianization. Nikolaevsky felt [1929] that the long paragraph in the Russian Section program needed to be considered so that Marx's comment would have fullest meaning [379-80]:

The peasant obshchina, founded on communal landholding, will never in the end surrender to the bondage of kulak rule [v kabalu kulachestva, to the slavery of the money lender; or of the rich peasant]. It will still for some time bear up under political, governmental oppression. It will suffer that oppression until there has developed among its members a self-consciousness and understanding of the absurdity of tsarism, until its fetishism with respect to the tsar is destroyed. But it will never put up with direct economic pressure exerted by landlords, or direct commercial deals with kulaks, who for that very reason will never be able on their own, without the interference of state power, [379/380] to carry away into bondage the whole landholding obshchina. It is impossible to strip the land from the obshchina, as an indivisible unity, or to render it destitute. Western European nations, however, present an all too instructive example of just how quickly the petty individual property holders submit to the pressure of déclassé profiteers and, losing their landed property, fall into bondage, a victim of the barbarian law of arbitrary supply and involuntary demand.

Marx's comment (set against the phrase in italics above): “Dieser Kohl kommt darauf heraus [? the last two words written with unusual force of pencil, but in abbreviated form; exact words are not certain]. Das russische Gemeineigentum ist verträglich mit russicher [sic] Barbarei, aber nicht mit bürgerlicher Civilisation!” [Russian communal property is consistent with Russian barbarity, but not with urban civilization!] [380]

At other points in the Russian Section’s programmatic article, Marx gave close attention to the contradictory sides of the 1861 emancipation. Marx gave more attention to detailed passages than to more general or theoretical passages. He clearly appreciated the information in the article. [[And must have continued to reflect on the long passage above, since he drifted toward an evaluation of the obshchina not at all unlike that of the Russian Section. I suspect Nikolaevskii wished not to discuss this issue directly but also wished to give plenty of material so that an independent reader just might notice it and consider it independently.]]

The Narodnoe delo article praised village “mutual assurance” [krugovaia poruka; generally translated as "collective responsibility" (ID)], describing it as

the principle of obshchina economic solidarity, a principle all the more just in that every person of any intelligence at all understands that what is called wealth, the enrichment of peasant-kulaks, is always achieved at the cost of a directly proportional impoverishment of the larger part of the members of the obshchina, and consequently rich peasants bear on their own shoulders a larger portion of mutual assurance, only they pay it to the obshchina, so to speak, a tax on income. [380]

Marx again employed Latin, repeating the judgment first handed down at the beginning of the article: “Asinus!” [380]

[[SAC editor note = These harsh marginal judgments should not be taken as inflexible or absolute judgments. They were in some measure simply Marx's critical style, like the growl and bark of Boston drivers. They were not really homicidal; Marx was not really rejecting the author out of hand. He was himself beginning to rethink just these issues about which his sharp comments wrongly suggest decisive clarity on his part.]]

Marx read other periodicals as well, especially in the time of the struggle with Bakunin. We know he read Bakunin's letter to students, “Neskol'ko slov k molodym brat'iam v Rossii” [A few words to my young brothers in Russia] (Geneva, 1869). But Marx's copy has not survived in the archives. Marx closely followed the whole Bakunin-Nechaev fiasco. He read the official Pravitel'stvennyi vestnik [Governmental herald] with very full coverage of the Nechaev trials. [381-3]

Marx also read P. N. Tkachev's testimony about the free relationship between the men and women who participated in the student movement. Tkachev defended fictive marriages because they rescued women from the patriarchal authority of fathers. He defended looser attitudes toward traditional marriage and family on moral grounds. He asserted that new ways were motivated by an esteem and respect for women, superior to those of contemporary society. Marx lined this section of Tkachev’s testimony. [383]

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