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Marx on the American "General Redistribution"

In Vperyod, No. 12,[1] there was a reference to Marx's polemic against Kriege on the agrarian question. The year was not 1848, as erroneously stated in the article by Comrade —, but 1846. Hermann Kriege, a co-worker of Marx and at the time a very young man, had gone to America in 1845 and there started a journal, the Volkstribun, for the propaganda of communism. But he conducted this propaganda in such a manner that Marx was obliged to protest very strongly in the name of the German Communists against Hermann Kriege's discrediting of the Communist Party. The criticism of Kriege's trend, published in 1846 in Westphälische Dampfboot[3] and reprinted in Volume II of Mehring's edition of Marx's works, is of tremendous interest to present-day Russian Social-Democrats.

The point is that the agrarian question at that time had been brought to the fore by the course of the American social movement, as is the case now in Russia; it was not a question of a developed capitalist society, but, on the contrary, of the creation of the primary and fundamental conditions for a real development of capitalism. This circumstance is of particular importance for drawing a parallel between Marx's attitude towards the American ideas of "general redistribution" and the attitude of Russian Social-Democrats to wards the present-day peasant movement.

Kriege gave no data in his journal for a concrete study of the distinctive features of the American social system and for defining the true character of the movement of the contemporary agrarian reformers who campaigned for the abolition of rent. What Kriege did do, though (quite in the style of our "Socialists-Revolutionaries"), was to clothe the question of the agrarian revolution in bombastic and high-sounding phrases: "Every poor man," wrote Kriege, "will become a useful member of human society as soon as he is given an opportunity to engage in productive work. He will be assured such an opportunity for all time if society gives him a piece of land on which he can keep himself and his family.... If this immense area (the 1,400,000,000 acres of North American public domain) is withdrawn from commerce and is secured in restricted amounts for labour,[2] an end will be put to poverty in America at one stroke...."

To this Marx replies: "One would have expected him to understand that legislators have no power to decree that the evolution of the patriarchal system, which Kriege desires, into an industrial system be checked, or that the industrial and commercial states of the East coast be thrown back to patriarchal barbarism."

Thus, we have before us a real plan for an American general redistribution: the withdrawal of a vast land expanse from commerce, the securing of title to the land, limitation of the extent of landownership or land tenure. And from the very outset Marx subjects this utopianism to sober criticism, he points out that the patriarchal system evolves inevitably into the industrial system, i.e., to use present-day idiom, he points out the inevitability of the development of capitalism. But it would be a great mistake to think that the utopian dreams of the participants in the movement caused Marx to adopt a negative attitude to the movement in general. Nothing of the kind. Already then, at the very beginning of his literary activity, Marx was able to extract the real and progressive content of a movement from its tawdry ideological trappings. In the second part of his criticism, entitled "The Economics [i.e., the political economy] of the Volkstribun and Its Attitude to Young America", Marx wrote:

"We fully recognise the historical justification of the movement of the American National Reformers. We know that this movement strives for a result which, true, would give a temporary impetus to the industrialisation of modern bourgeois society, but which, as a product of the proletarian movement, and as an attack on landed property in general, especially under prevailing American conditions, must inevitably lead, by its own consequences, to communism. Kriege, who with the German Communists in New York joined the Anti-Rent Bewegung [movement], clothes this simple fact in bombastic phrases, without entering into the content of the movement, thereby proving that he is quite at sea as regards the connection between young America and American social conditions. We will cite another example of his outpouring of enthusiasm for humanity over the agrarians' plan for parcelling the land on an American scale.

"In issue No. 10 of the Volkstribun, in an article entitled 'What We Want', we read: 'The American National Reformers call the land the common heritage of all men ... and demand that the national legislature pass measures to preserve the 1,400,000,000 acres of land not yet fallen into the hands of the grabbing speculators, as the inalienable common property of the whole of mankind.' In order to preserve for all mankind this 'inalienable common property', he accepts the plan of the National Reformers: 'to provide every peasant, whatever country he may come from, with 160 acres of American land for his subsistence'; or, as it is expressed in issue No. 14, in 'An Answer to Conze': 'Of these unappropriated public lands no one is to have a holding in excess of 160 acres, and this only provided he tills it himself.' Thus, in order to preserve the land as 'inalienable common property', and for 'the whole of mankind' besides, it is necessary immediately to begin parcelling it out. Kriege, moreover, imagines that he can rule out the necessary consequences of this allotment—concentration, industrial progress, and the like, by legislation. He regards 160 acres of land as an invariable quantity, as though the value of such an area did not vary according to its quality. The 'peasants' will have to exchange the produce of the land, if not the land itself, among themselves and with others, and, having gone thus far, they will soon find that one 'peasant', even without capital, thanks to his labour and the greater original fertility of his 160 acres, has reduced another to the position of his farm-hand. Besides, what matters it whether it is 'the land' or the produce of the land that 'falls into the hands of grabbing speculators'? Let us seriously examine Kriege's gift to mankind. One thousand four hundred million acres are to be I)reserved as the 'inalienable common property of the whole of mankind', with every 'peasant' getting 160 acres. We can therefore compute the magnitude of Kriege's 'mankind': exactly 8,750,000 'peasants', who, counting five to a family, represent 43,750,000 people. We can also compute the duration of the 'for all time' during which 'the proletariat, as the representative of the whole of mankind', at least in the U.S.A., can lay claim to all the land. If the population of the U.S.A. continues to increase at its present rate, i.e., if it doubles in 25 years, then this 'for all time' will last something under 40 years; by then these 1,400,000,000 acres will have been occupied, and future generations will have nothing to 'lay claim to'. But as the free grant of land would greatly in crease immigration, Kriege's 'for all time' might come to an end even sooner, particularly if it is borne in mind that land for 44,000,000 people would not be an adequate outlet even for the pauperism existing in Europe today; for in Europe one out of every 10 persons is a pauper, and the British Isles alone account for 7,000,000 paupers. A similar example of naiveté in political economy is to be found in issue No. 13, in the article 'To the Women', in which Kriege says that if the city of New York gave up its 52,000 acres of land on Long Island, this would suffice to rid New York of all pauperism, misery, and crime 'at one stroke' and for ever.

"Had Kriege regarded the movement for freeing the land as an early form of the proletarian movement, necessary under certain conditions, as a movement which, by reason of the position in social life of the class from which it emanates, must necessarily develop into a communist movement; had he shown why the communist aspirations in America had to manifest themselves initially in this agrarian form, which seems to contradict all communism, there would have been nothing to object to. But he declares what is merely a subordinate form of a movement of definite, real people to be a cause of mankind in general. He represents this cause ... as the ultimate and highest aim of every movement in general, thus turning the definite aims of the movement into sheer bombastic nonsense. In the same article (issue No. 10) he continues to chant his paean: 'And so the old dreams of the Europeans would at last come true. A place would be prepared for them on this side of the ocean which they would only have to take and to fructify with the labour of their hands, so as to be able proudly to declare to all the tyrants of the world, 'This is my cabin, which you have not built; this is my hearth whose glow fills your hearts with envy.'

"He might have added, This is my dunghill, which I, my wife, my children, my manservant, and my cattle have produced. And who are the Europeans whose 'dreams' would thus come true? Not the communist workers, but bankrupt shopkeepers and handicraftsmen, or ruined cottars, who yearn for the good fortune of once again becoming petty bourgeois and peasants in America. And what is the 'dream' that is to be fulfilled by means of these 1,400,000,000 acres? No other than that all men be converted into private owners, a dream which is as unrealisable and as communistic as the dream to convert all men into emperors, kings, and popes."

Marx's criticism is full of caustic sarcasm. He scourges Kriege for those very aspects of his views which we now observe among our "Socialists-Revolutionaries", namely, phrase-mongering, petty-bourgeois utopias represented as the highest revolutionary utopianism, incomprehension of the real foundations of the modern economic system and its development. With remarkable penetration, Marx, who was then only the future economist, points to the role of exchange and commodity production.The peasants, he says, will exchange the produce of the land, if not the land itself, and that says everything! The question is dealt with in a way that is largely applicable to the Russian peasant movement and its petty-bourgeois "socialist" ideologists.

Marx, however, does not simply "repudiate" this petty bourgeois movement, he does not dogmatically ignore it, he does not fear to soil his hands by contact with the movement of the revolutionary petty-bourgeois democrats—a fear that is characteristic of many doctrinaires. While mercilessly ridiculing the absurd ideological trappings of the movement, Marx strives in a sober, materialist manner to deter mine its real historical content, the consequences that must inevitably follow from it because of objective conditions, regardless of the will and the consciousness, the dreams and the theories, of the various individuals. Marx, therefore, does not condemn, but fully approves communist support of the movement. Adopting the dialectical standpoint, i.e., examining the movement from every aspect, taking into account both the past and the future, Marx notes the revolutionary aspect of the attack on private property in land. He recognises the petty-bourgeois movement as a peculiar initial form of the proletarian, communist movement. You will not achieve what you dream of by means of this movement, says Marx to Kriege: instead of fraternity, you will get petty-bourgeois exclusiveness; instead of inalienable peasant allotments, you will have the drawing of the land into commerce; instead of a blow at the grabbing speculators, you will witness the expansion of the basis for capitalist development. But the capitalist evil you are vainly hoping to avoid is a historical benefit, for it will accelerate social development tremendously and bring ever so much nearer new and higher forms of the communist movement. A blow struck at landed property will facilitate the inevitable further blows at property in general. The revolutionary action of the lower class for a change that will temporarily provide a restricted prosperity, and by no means for all, will facilitate the inevitable further revolutionary action of the very lowest class for a change that will really ensure complete human happiness for all toilers.

Marx's presentation of the case against Kriege should serve as a model for us Russian Social-Democrats. That the peasant movement in Russia today is of a really petty-bourgeois nature there can be no doubt. We must explain this fact by every means in our power, and we must ruthlessly and irreconcilably combat all the illusions of all the "Socialists Revolutionaries" or primitive socialists on this score. The organisation of an independent party of the proletariat which, through all democratic upheavals, will strive for the complete socialist revolution, must be our constant aim, not to be lost sight of for a moment. But to turn away from the peasant movement for this reason would be sheer philistinism and pedantry. No, there is no doubt as to the revolutionary and democratic nature of this movement, and we must with all our might support it, develop it, make it a politically conscious and definitely class movement, advance it, and go hand in hand with it to the end—for we go much further than the end of any peasant movement; we go to the very end of the division of society into classes. There is hardly another country in the world where the peasantry is experiencing such suffering, such oppression and degradation as in Russia. The worse this oppression has been, the more powerful will now be the peasantry's awakening, the more irresistible its revolutionary onset. The class-conscious revolutionary proletariat should support this onset with all its might, so that it may leave stand no stone of this old, accursed, feudal, autocratic, and slavish Russia; so that it may create a new generation of free and courageous people, a new republican country in which our proletarian struggle for socialism will be able freely to expand.

V. I. Lenin


[1] See p. 250 of this volume.—Ed.

[2] Recall what Revolutsionnaya Rossiya, beginning with issue No.8, wrote on the passing of the land from capital to labour, on the importance of state lands in Russia, on equalised land tenure, on the bourgeois idea of drawing land into commercial transactions, etc. Precisely like Kriege!—Lenin

[3] Das Westphälische Dampiboot (Westphalian Steamer)—a German periodical of a democratic trend published in Westphalia between 1845 and 1848. The journal published occasional articles by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.

Published: Vperyod, No. 15, April 20 (7), 1905. Published according to the text in Vperyod.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1962, Moscow, Volume 8, pages 323-329.
Translated: Bernard Isaacs and The Late Isidor Lasker

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