Emancipation, a disappointment?


In 1858, writing on the subject of Russian emancipation reform, Karl Marx declared: “It is impossible to emancipate the oppressed class without injury to the class living upon its oppression” 1 Whether Marx was attempting to rally support from likeminded Communists, or simply stating his predictions for the legislation it cannot be said. However, what can be understood is that the philosopher was prematurely underlining just how much disparagement the reform would create. Therefore, within this essay I will endeavour to explain why a seemingly humanitarian act can be seen as a disappointment; I will examine just how far this assessment reaches, investigating how the reform effected the serfs, autocracy, empire, and economy. And, I will argue in contradiction towards Marx’s statement, concluding that the abolition of serfdom in 1861 was in fact a partial success.

The argument for servile labour’s abolishment was seeded inside the Russian state itself; the country was backward, a predominantly feudalistic agricultural state. It had failed to industrialise like other European powers, and was struggling militarily. Consequently, the basic case for reform did not come from liberal thinking, as it would be easy to conclude today, but from the Russian Empire’s need to maintain it’s political strength and absolutist regime. It was hoped, the freeing of serfs from their land would incentivise the creation of a market economy, leading to a larger middle class, kick-starting industrial development, and increasing the Russian Empire’s strength. Yet, in actuality this did not immediately happen. Instead, the peasantry was thrown into disappointment. The land of which they had toiled for generations was stripped away from them, and in order to regain this they were forced to pay money they did not have (albeit there was a manufacturing revolution after the Act passed). Thusly, in terms of ‘freeing’ the serfs, the emancipation was a bitter failure for the labourers themselves. Liberated peasants were further tied to their land for financial support. Moreover, the substantial loans created from the purchase of overpriced holdings meant that the burden of debt fell upon several generations.

Nevertheless, the major focus of the abolitionist movement was not liberty, but governmental and economic reform. The legislation gave way to future amends, such as the complete transformation of the judicial system, local-government and military. These changes would have a drastic effect on Russian society. Law was aided by a more impartial jury system, local government would become more efficient with zemstva, and the military better equipped with improvements in locomotion and conscription. As a result of granting the serfs ‘freedom’, the state did benefit, and so did the Pomeshchiki (landed gentry).  Furthermore, landowners, as well as those who had previously possessed ‘souls’ were refunded for their losses. And, thusly, given the exaggerated cost of land (a 154% average increase in non Black-Earth regions) the bourgeois holders were generally able to maintain their social status. Emancipating the serfs, subsequently, led directly to the goal of Tsar Alexander II: reform.

Returning to Marx’s statement on emancipation, through the process of abolishing serfdom, it is evident that the greatest victims were, indeed, the serfs themselves. Furthermore, on the reasoning that freeing the peasants would act as in impetus towards the creation of an advanced capitalist state, emancipation was a triumph. Instead of immediately injuring those in power it predominantly allowed for the middle classes to benefit from the peasantry’s struggle. And, therefore, aid in revolutionising the Empire with the creation of new factories, railways and mines in the later part of the 19th Century. Emancipation was somewhat of a disappointment insofar as the majority of the Russian populace, the serfs, were laden with excessive debts. Conversely, for those in power the abolishment was a remarkable achievement, and critically, it did not lead to their instantaneous injury as Marx had argued. In fact, the societal reform only bettered the Empire’s economy.  The impact of which can be seen in the increase of agricultural and industrial production, as well as of overall living standards. Nonetheless, the legislation was only a partial success due to economic reform providing greater social mobility within the peasant classes. This enabled the creation of a Russian working class, a Russian proletariat, which would play a key role in future revolutions. Hence, to some extent Marx’s argument has credence, yet it would be a falsehood to blame a reform, of which benefited Russian society, on emancipation alone. Subsequently, although initially the reform act came as a bitter frustration for Russia’s serfs, it was not a disappointment.

(Marx, Karl. 1858. New-York Daily Tribune.)


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