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Peasant Socialism

 

Herzen became convinced that  a political revolution was not enough to alter radically the basic conditions of the life of society. What was needed was a transformation of social conditions and, first of all, of the relations of ownership. The Western European experience seemed to provide overwhelming evidence that it was precisely the problem of property rights that became the chief obstacle impeding the evolution of the humanity. It split society into two unequal and antagonistic parts: the propertied minority and the dispossessed majority. Disillusioned with bourgeois civilization, Herzen turned to his country’s traditional institutions in search of the foundations of a better society of the future and found them in the village commune (in Russian, obshchina or  mir). 

 

The communes, owing to their democratic traditions, periodical redistribution of land, collective use of pasture and grazing grounds, appeared to him to provide ready-made building-blocks of the economic and administrative foundations of society of the future. In his view, this unique institution gave the Russian people a great advantage over the Western nations in their advance towards socialism, since the special properties of the commune made Russian peasant an instinctive socialist. Herzen transformed the obshchina into the corner-stone of Russian peasant socialism: 

 

Our people’s life is based on the village community, with division of the fields, with communistic landownership, with  elected administration and equal responsibility for each  worker... The natural unaffectedness of our rural life, the precarious and unestablished nature of economic and legal concepts, the vagueness of property rights, the absence of a bourgeoisie, our own extraordinary adaptability: all these represent a position superior to nations that are fully constituted and tired... The only thing that is conservative on our shifting, unsettled soil is the village commune - that is, the only thing deserving preservation... I believe, with all my heart and mind, that it is our door on which history is knocking.

 

The word Socialism is unknown to our people, but its meaning is close to the hearts of Russians who have lived for ages in the village commune... I boldly repeat that the mere fact of communal landownership and partition of the fields justifies the assumption that our untilled black earth is more capable of germinating the seed brought from Western fields...[i.e. socialism].

Herzen realized that the primitive socialist properties of the village life were nothing more than ‘raw material’ for the society of the future. Two crucial conditions had to be met before the village commune was able to develop its innate socialist potential to the full. First, it had to be liberated from the oppressive control of the authorities and, second, it should adopt advanced technical methods from the West and use them to modernize its economic activity. Only then would it be able to translate socialist ideals into life and to satisfy most fully material and cultural needs of its members. 

His theory, based on the belief in the inbred socialist tendencies of the Russian people, allowed Herzen to adopt the European concept of socialism to Russian conditions and to show for the first time that backward Russia was actually more prepared for the introduction of socialism than industrialized Europe. The communal organization seemed to provide an ideal form of harmonizing personal interests with the collectivist character of production. It would  provide the basis for an egalitarian society. It would open for Russia a new, non-capitalist path of development and thus enable it to avoid the evils of capitalism. Herzen’s vision of a regenerated Russia, free of exploitation and inequalities in wealth, inspired a whole cohort of new revolutionaries - Narodniks (or ‘Populists’), many of whom indulged in a most extravagant idealization of the commune.

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