- Comment in agreement or disagreement with the following quote: “during the 19th Century Russia was considered to have the most conservative and least reform-minded, government in Europe." What factors in Russian history contributed to this situation? What was the response to this reality by liberal leaning Russian military and political leaders?
In Russia, the central political and economic problem was serfdom, which was basically slavery under another name with the majority of the population in an un-free condition. Certainly some Russian governments attempted to deal with this problem, particularly Tsar Alexander II, who freed the serfs in 1861 and granted them limited citizenship rights. Although he made some attempts to establish trial by jury and democratic government, he did not go far enough to satisfy many radical revolutionaries and was assassinated in 1881. On the other hand, Nicholas I and Alexander III used police state methods to repress all revolutionary tendencies, although the military defeats that the system experienced in the Crimean War and the Russo-Japanese War opened the door to revolution (Sherman and Salisbury Chapter 19).
As early as 1825, a group of young nobles and army officers called the Decembrists, were inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution to attempt to overthrow the autocracy and demand a constitution, but they were quickly crushed and either executed or sent to Siberia. Alexander Hertzen, the greatest of the 19th Century Russian revolutionaries, wrote from exile that Russia needed ‘Land and Liberty’. Russia was going to have a revolution, sooner or later, and it was generally expected that the Tsar and nobility would be overthrown, similar to the French Revolution of 1789. Since the majority of the population consisted of poor peasants, this revolution would give them the control over the land that they desired. This is not exactly how events turned out, of course (Sherman and Salisbury Chapter 19).
There was no democracy in Russia and only a very weak liberal tradition, for there was hardly any middle class to organize and lead a liberal party. Economically, it was still a mostly agrarian country ruled by the feudal aristocracy and an absolute monarch, and virtually anyone who gave the matter any serious thought realized that a revolution was inevitable. If revolution came, though, it would not exactly be the type that Karl Marx was predicting for the Western capitalist countries, although his writings were certainly popular in Russia. Not only was there no real middle class or capitalist industrialists, there was hardly any working class, which left the Marxists with a considerable dilemma.
Not only was there no capitalist class to overthrow bit no proletariat to lead the socialist revolution. In Russia, the state was in charge of the modernization and industrialization that did occur, such as constructing the railroads, including the Trans-Siberian Railroad. By contemporary European standards it remained an underdeveloped nation, heavily dependent on foreign loans, and even many socialists thought that it would have to experience a capitalist phase of development before there could be a transition to socialism. Marx stated that if Russia could not simply skip over the liberal-capitalist phase or it would risk developing a very authoritarian type of socialism, which he called ‘barracks socialism’. In the end, thanks to Lenin and the Bolsheviks, this is the direction Russia took, but only after a prolonged civil war.
- What was the balance sheet of the industrial revolution? Did long-term gains in standards of living outweigh short-term misery? Or was the material gain too limited to compensate for social and individual dislocations caused-directly or indirectly-by the factory system? In you answer, remember to look at the issue from both individual and societal perspectives.
In the long run, the industrialization process that began in Great Britain in the late-18th Century did raise living standards and create a larger middle class in the Western countries, although there was not much evidence for this in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Britain led the way in industrialization in a very haphazard and unplanned way, but this was only to be expected since it had never been done before in history. Its inventors like James Watt first learned how to use steam engines to power machinery, and there was already a class of commercial and agricultural capitalists with surplus profits to invest in the new railroads and factories. At that time, it seemed mainly that exploited peasants were being driven off the land and turned into exploited factory workers or simply forced to immigrate to the Americas and Australia. Peasants were not accustomed to the discipline of factory work, not even to working according to the clock as opposed to the sun and seasons (Sherman and Salisbury Chapter 17).
Industrialization produced a very wealthy capitalist class in the West, but for the most part the workers put in very long hours for low pay and lived in slum-like conditions. At least up to the 1850s and 1860s, there is hardly any evidence that real wages and incomes were increasing at all for the working class. Only in the 20th Century, with stronger labor unions and social democratic, welfare state policies did the incomes and living standards on the working class really begin to improve. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, though, working and living conditions in the industrial cities were as horrible as the writings of Charles Dickens, Karl Marx and many others at the time described
During the 17th and 18th Centuries, the Enclosure Acts in Great Britain had already driven millions of peasants off the land, and this system of large-scale, consolidated agriculture had advanced farther there than in any other European country. Over time, the textile industry was also the first to mechanize and concentrate all of its production in large factories, which destroyed the livelihoods of many of the small weavers and spinners who worked at home. By the 1840s, most of these had also been driven into economic extinction, which would also happen to other artisans and small craftsmen and shop owners as industrialization proceeded. This was the reason that Karl Marx concluded that the factory system would eliminate many of the small farmers and artisans from the economy since he had observed this happening in Britain and other countries. They were reduced to the level of real poverty and could only survive as factory workers or agricultural laborers (Sherman and Salisbury Chapter 17).
At that time in Britain and other Western countries, people like these even lacked the right to vote or defend their rights in a legal manner, so they responded with riots and rebellions, like the Captain Swing riots against the use of agricultural machinery in England and the Luddites who kept attempting to destroy the textile machines and burn down the factories. Although industrialization did make Great Britain the major economic and financial power in the world (and by the 1860s the first country in history with the majority of the population living in cities and towns), there is little evidence that the benefits worked their way down to the lower classes at that time.
Sherman, Dennis and Joyce Salisbury. The West in the World Volume 2, 4th Edition. McGraw-Hill, 2010.