V. I. Lenin
Original publication: marxists.org

A Fearlessness Worthy of a Better Cause (1897)

17 minutes | English | The Soviet Union

Originally “About a Certain Newspaper Article,” published in the magazine Novoye Slovo, No. 1, 1897 under the pseudonym K. Tulin.

Issue No. 239 of Russkiye Vedomosti [1] (dated August 30) contains a short article by Mr. N. Levitsky entitled “Certain Problems Affecting the Life of the People.” “Living in the country and being in constant contact with the people” the author “long ago came up against” certain problems affecting the life of the people, the solution of which by means of appropriate “measures” is an “urgent necessity,” a “pressing need.” The author expresses the conviction that his “brief remarks” on a subject of such importance “will meet with a response among those who are interested in the people’s needs,” and he expresses the desire to provoke an exchange of opinion on the problems he advances.

The “lofty style” in which Mr. N. Levitsky’s article is written and the high-sounding words in which it abounds lead one to expect that it deals with some really important, urgent, vital problems of modern life. Actually, however, the author’s proposals merely provide one more example, and an exceedingly striking one at that, of the truly Manilovian [2] fantasy to which the Narodnik journalists have accustomed the Russian public. That is why we thought it would be useful to voice our views on the problems that Mr. N. Levitsky raises.

Mr. N. Levitsky enumerates five “problems” (point by point) and he not only provides an “answer” for every “problem,” but also indicates very definitely the appropriate “measure” to be taken. The first problem is — “cheap and accessible” credit, the elimination of the tyranny of money lenders, “kulaks, and all sorts of sharks and parasites.” The measure to be taken is — “to devise a simpler type of village peasants’ loan and saving bank,” and the author proposes that the branches of the State Bank should issue savings-bank books not to individuals, but to specially organised associations, which will make deposits and receive loans through a single treasurer.

And so the author’s long “contact with the people” enabled him to draw this conclusion on the hackneyed problem of credit — “devise” a new type of loan and savings bank! Evidently the author imagines that not enough paper and ink is being wasted in this country on drafting endless “types,” “models,” “rules,” “model rules,” “normal rules,” etc., etc. “Living in the country,” our practical man failed to see any of the more important problems raised by the desire to replace the “kulak” by “cheap and accessible credit.” We shall not, of course, discuss here the importance of credit: we take the author’s aim for granted; we shall merely examine from the purely practical aspect the remedies he proposes with such pomp.

Credit is an institution of developed commodity circulation. The question is — is it possible to establish such an institution among our peasantry, whom the countless survivals of laws and prohibitions that spring from the division of society into social estates have placed in conditions that rule out regular, free, extensive and developed commodity circulation? Is it not ridiculous, when speaking of the urgent and pressing needs of the people, to reduce the problem of credit to devising “rules” of a new type and to say nothing whatever about the need to abolish the entire mass of “rules” which hinder regular commodity circulation among the peasantry, hinder the free purchase and sale of property — real estate and personal property — hinder the peasants from moving freely from place to place and from one occupation to another, and hinder individuals from other classes and social estates from joining the peasant communities? What can be more comical than fighting “kulaks, usurers, parasites and sharks” by perfecting the “rules” of credit banks? Usury in its worst forms is most tenacious in our rural districts, and is so precisely because of the exclusiveness of the estate system there, because of the thousand fetters which shackle the development of commodity circulation — and yet our practical-minded author says not a word about these fetters, but declares that the drafting of new rules is the urgent problem of rural credit. In all probability the developed capitalist countries, where the rural districts have long been placed in conditions that facilitate the circulation of commodities, and where credit has been extensively developed, in all probability these countries achieved this success thanks to the multitude of “rules” drafted by benevolent officials!

The second problem is — “the helpless position of a peasant family when the head of the family dies,” and also “the urgent necessity” of “safeguarding and preserving the peasant working agricultural population by all possible means and methods.” As you see, the further he goes the wider and more majestic become Mr. Levitsky’s “problems”! The first problem concerned a very ordinary bourgeois institution, the value of which we could only admit with very considerable reservation; but here we have a problem of such gigantic importance that “in principle” we fully admit its urgency and cannot suppress a warm feeling for the author for raising it. But the Narodnik’s gigantic problem is matched by a “measure” of gigantic… what is the mildest way we can put it? …unwisdom. Listen:

“…there arises the urgent need to organise and introduce compulsory (sic!) mutual life insurance for the entire peasant population on a mass scale at the cheapest possible rates [3] (societies, associations, artels, etc.). And it is necessary to ascertain the role and part to be played in this business by a) private insurance companies, b) the Zemstvos, and c) the state.”

Our muzhiks are so dull-witted! They give no thought to the fact that if the head of the family dies the rest will have to go begging; that if the crop fails they will starve, and that even if they have a good crop sometimes, they will have to go begging just the same on returning from abortive quests for “earnings.” These stupid muzhiks have no idea that there is such a thing as “life insurance,” to which many good gentlemen have long had recourse and out of which other good gentlemen (shareholders in insurance companies) make money. Starving “Sysoika” [4] has no idea that all he has to do is to join with “Mityai,” who is starving like himself, in organising a mutual life insurance company (with low, very low contributions!), and their families will be provided for in the event of their death. Luckily, the thinking for these dull-witted muzhiks is done by our enlightened Narodnik intelligentsia, one of whose representatives “living in the country and being in constant contact with the people,” “long ago came up against” this tremendous, this astounding and stupendous “project”!

Third problem. “In connection with this problem it is necessary to raise and discuss the problem of establishing an imperial capital fund for insuring the lives of the peasant population [5] on the same lines as the existing imperial food and fire funds.” It goes without saying that to deal with insurance, we must discuss the question of capital. But it seems to us that our highly esteemed author is guilty here of an important omission. Is it not also “necessary to raise and discuss” the question as to which ministry and which department will be in charge of the proposed institution? Firstly, there can be no doubt that the Economic Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs should be in charge of it. Secondly, the Zemstvo Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs is also closely interested. Thirdly, the Ministry of Finance should also be in charge of insurance affairs. In view of this, would it not be more advisable to propose the establishment of a special Chief Administration of State Compulsory Mutual Life Insurance for the Entire Peasant Population, on the lines, say, of the Chief State Horse-Breeding Administration?

Fourth problem. “Further, in view of the tremendously widespread character of all sorts of artels throughout Russia, and also in view of their undoubted usefulness and importance to the national economy, the urgent need has arisen 4) of organising a separate, special Society for the Promotion of Agricultural and Other Artels.” That artels of all sorts are beneficial to the classes of the population who organise them is undoubted. It is also undoubted that to unite the representatives of the various classes will also be of great benefit to the entire national economy. Only the author waxes far too enthusiastic when he talks about “the tremendously widespread character of all sorts of artels throughout Russia.” Everybody knows that, compared with any West European country, the number of “all sorts of artels” is incredibly, phenomenally small in Russia. … “Everybody knows this” … except the dreamy Manilov. The editors of Russkiye Vedomosti, for example, know it since they published above Mr. N. Levitsky’s article a very interesting and highly informative item, entitled “Syndicates in France.” From this article Mr. N. Levitsky might have learned how immensely “all sorts of artels” are developed in capitalist France (compared with non-capitalist Russia). I underline “all sorts,” for it can easily be seen from this article that there are four sorts of syndicates in France:

  1. workers’ syndicates (2,163 syndicates with 419,172 members);
  2. employers’ syndicates (1,622 with 130,752 members);
  3. agricultural syndicates (1,188 with 398,048 members) and
  4. mixed syndicates (173 with 31,126 members).

Add up all these figures, Mr. Kevitsky! You will get a total of nearly a million people (979,000) organised in “all sorts of artels.” And now tell us, with your hand on your heart, are you really not ashamed of the phrase you let slip about the “tremendously widespread character of all sorts (sic!!!) of artels throughout Russia”? Do you really fail to see what a comical, sadly comical impression your article creates by the side of the bare figures of the “syndicates in France”? These poor Frenchmen, whom, evidently, the canker of capitalism has deprived of the “tremendously widespread character of all sorts of artels,” would probably burst into Homeric laughter at the proposal to establish a “separate special society” … for promoting the establishment of all sorts of societies! It goes without saying, however, that this laughter would only be a demonstration of the notorious frivolity of the French, who are incapable of understanding Russian thoroughness. These frivolous Frenchmen form “all sorts of artels,” not only without first setting up “societies for the promotion of artels” but even — horribile dictu! — without first drawing up “model,” “normal” rules and “simplified types” of societies of various kinds!

Fifth problem … (the urgent need has arisen) “to publish, under the auspices of this society (or separately), a special organ … devoted exclusively to the study of the co-operative movement in Russia and abroad.” … Yes, yes, Mr. Levitsky! When a disordered stomach prevents a person from having a proper meal, he has no alternative but to read about how other people eat. But in all probability, the doctors would not allow a person who is so sick to read about the dinners other people eat, for such reading might stimulate an inordinate appetite not commensurate with the diet prescribed. … And the doctors would be quite consistent in doing so.

We have expounded Mr. Levitsky’s short article in sufficient detail. The reader will probably ask whether it was worth dealing at such length with a casual newspaper article, whether it was worth devoting such a lengthy comment to it. Indeed, what importance is there in the fact that somebody (who, generally speaking, is prompted by the best intentions) happened to talk nonsense about some sort of compulsory mutual life insurance for the entire peasant population? We have heard very similar opinions expressed on analogous subjects. These opinions are, to say the least, groundless. Maybe it is an accident that our “progressive journalists” every now and again positively vomit up such phenomenally wild “projects” on the lines of “feudal socialism” that one can only shrug one’s shoulders in amazement? Maybe it is an accident that organs like Russkoye Bogatstvo and Russkiye Vedomosti, which are by no means ultra-Narodnik, which always protest against the extremes of Narodism and against the conclusions drawn from Narodism à la Mr. V. V., and which are even not averse to covering up the rags and tatters of their Narodism with the bright new label of some “ethico-sociological school,” that even such organs periodically, with punctilious regularity, present the Russian public now with some “educational utopia” proposed by Mr. S. Yuzhakov [6] — a scheme for compulsory secondary education in agricultural gymnasia in which indigent peasants are to pay the tuition fees by work — and now with this project of Mr. N. Levitsky’s for compulsory mutual life insurance for the entire peasant population? [7]

It would be too naïve to put this down to accident. There is a Manilov in every Narodnik. Disdain for conditions as they really are and for economic evolution as it really is, unwillingness to analyse the real interests of the different classes of Russian society in their inter-relationships, the habit of laying down the law from above about the “needs” and “destiny” of the fatherland, of boasting about the miserable survivals of medieval associations that exist in the Russian village communities and artels, together with a disdainful attitude towards the incomparably more highly developed associations characteristic of more highly developed capitalism — all these features are to be found in a greater or lesser degree in every Narodnik. That is why it is so edifying to watch some not over-clever, but very naïve, writer, with a fearlessness worthy of a better cause, carrying these features to their full logical development and embodying them in the dazzling picture of some “project.” These projects always turn out to be dazzling, so dazzling that merely to show them to the reader is to prove how harmful contemporary petty-bourgeois Narodism is to our social thought and social development. Such projects always contain much that is comical; in most cases a superficial reading of them creates no other impression than a desire to laugh. But try to get at their real meaning and you will say: “It would all be funny were it not so sad!”

[1] Russkiye Vedomosti (Russian Recorder) — a newspaper published in Moscow from 1863 onwards; it expressed the views of the moderate liberal intelligentsia. Among its contributors in the 1880s and 1890s were the democratic writers V. G. Korolenko, M. Y. Saltykov-Shchedrin and G. I. Uspensky. It also published items written by liberal Narodniks. In 1905 it became the organ of the Right wing of the bourgeois Cadet Party. Lenin said that Russkiye Vedomosti was a peculiar combination of “Right-wing Cadetism and a strain of Narodism.” In 1918 it was closed down together with other counter-revolutionary newspapers. 

[2] Manilov — a character in Gogol’s Dead Souls, typifying the weak-willed, hollow dreamer and inert windbag. 

[3] Author’s italics. 

[4] Sysoika — one of the chief characters in F. M. Reshetnikov’s Poliipovtsi, typifying the ignorant and rightless poor peasant who is weighed down by want and unbearable toil. 

[5] Author’s italics. 

[6] “Gymnasium Farms and Corrective Gymnasia” was written in the autumn of 1895 in answer to S. N. Yuzhakov’s article “An Educational Utopia. A Plan for Universal, Compulsory Secondary Education,” published in Russkoye Bogatstvo (Russian Wealth) for May 1895. Lenin severely criticised the plan advanced by Yuzhakov who proposed compulsory secondary education in agricultural high schools (gymnasia), the poorer students having to cover the cost of their tuition by labour service, and showed its reactionary character. At the end of 1897, when in exile in Siberia, Lenin returned to this subject in the article “Gems of Narodnik Project-Mongering.” [8] The article was published over the signature of K. T—in on November 25 (December 7), 1895, in the Samarsky Vestnik[9] 

[7] Comparing these two fantasy-weavers of Narodnik journalism one cannot help giving preference to Mr. N. Levitsky, whose project is a trifle cleverer than that of Mr. S. Yuzhakov. 

[8] V. I. Lenin, “Gems of Narodnik Project-Mongering” (1897). [web] 

[9] The newspaper Samarsky Vestnik (Samara Herald) appeared in Samara (now the city of Kuibyshev) from 1883 to 1904. From the end of 1896 to March 1897 it was controlled by the “legal Marxists” (P. P. Maslov, R. Gvozdyov [R. E. Zimmerman], A. A. Sanin, V. V. Portugalov and others). In the 1890s it published occasional articles by Russian revolutionary Marxists.