Posts Tagged ‘Turgenev’

The Face of 19th Century Serfdom: Coming Back to a Supermarket Near You

January 8, 2014

Serf Work

19th Century Picture of Russian Serfs at Work. This is the real face of slavery – toil, degradation and despair, not the cheerful optimism the Prince’s Trust promise.

I’ve blogged and reblogged articles by myself and others, such as the redoubtable Johnny Void, pointing out that workfare constitutes and form of 21st century slavery. Earlier this week I reblogged a piece by Mr Void, in which he reports and attacks the Prince’s Trust for recommending an expansion of the workfare programme to combat the feelings of utter, suicidal hopeless felt by a third of the nation’s young jobless. The Prince’s Trust appears to believe that this would work on the grounds that actually performing some kind of work can allow a person to feel valued and that their life is worthwhile, even when they’re not paid. The great 19th century artist and essayist, William Ruskin, recognised that if work was interesting, worthwhile and enjoyable, then the workers would not care quite so much about payment, and tried to act on it. Now this is true. A friend of mine told me that the work he set the mason’s building and decorating his house was so fulfilling, that they willingly worked on it for sometime without payment, simply because the work was so good. There are thousands of people like myself doing voluntary work, not to get paid, but because the work itself is rewarding.

But that’s the point: it has to be rewarding. Otherwise, it really is another form of slavery. Ruskin recognised this, and his remarks were not to advocate unpaid labour and the exploitation of workers, but to demand their better treatment and that work should be made more interesting, pleasing and fulfilling as part of a general criticism of the horrors of 19th century capitalism.

The workfare embraced and extolled by the Prince’s Trust is the complete, absolute opposite of this. Those benefit claimants wishing to do some kind of meaningful, fulfilling voluntary work have been met with hostility and sanctions by the Jobcentre. One of the best-known examples of this was the Geology graduate, who was forced to take court action after the Jobcentre tried to stop her working in a museum and send her stacking shelves in the local supermarket instead. I’ve encountered exactly the same attitude from Jobcentre staff in Bristol. This is not the fulfilling, aesthetically and spiritually uplifting labour envisaged by Ruskin, but simply another form of serfdom in which the individual is made to labour without payment for the profit of the immensely rich. The picture at the top of this post shows the reality of such serfdom in 19th century Russia. It was back-breaking toil, in conditions of grinding poverty, without any hope of release or improvement. And this isn’t by any means the only painting to show similar scenes of poverty and despair amongst Russia’s immense population of the unfree.

Barge Haulers Volga

Barge-Haulers of the Volga, by the great Russian artist Ilya Repin, showing the kind of hopelessness coming back under workfare.

One of the classic depictions of 19th century Russian slavery is the picture, ‘Barge-Haulers of the Volga’. This shows a line of ragged men, ranging from teenage boys to the old and elderly, harnessed together to pull a ship up the Volga river, simply by brute force like horses pulling barges in Britain. Their eyes are dead, their faces devoid of all hope. This, the painter says, is all they can look forward to in life – just more toil, endless, meaningless, degrading toil, from youth to death. I’ve no doubt that it was the horrific conditions endured by so many serfs that is responsible for the country’s severe alcohol problem. There’s a Russian saying about money: too much for bread, not enough for shoes, just right for vodka! When poverty is so great that even some items of clothing are unaffordable, and the quality of life and work so poor and degrading, people automatically turn to drink and drugs for some kind of release. It was the same with the factory slaves here in Britain in the 19th century, when the labouring poor sought oblivion in cheap gin. If workfare continues to expand, you’ll see the same faces and expressions amongst the workfare slaves people stacking shelves as on the 19th century Russian serfs: crushed, dead-eyed individuals from whom any hope has been robbed.

There are other similarities between 19th century Russian serfdom and today’s workfare. Although serfs comprised the overwhelming mass of the country’s peasant population, they were also used in factories and mines. Even after they were officially liberated by Alexander II, 19th century Russian employers continued to look upon their workers as serfs, free in name only. I can remember being taught at College when studying the causes of the Russian Revolution that in the 19th and first years of the 20th century, the Russian factory masters actually told the workers ‘We own you!’ And to make it absolutely clear that this is not propaganda, the lecturer himself made very clear that he wasn’t a Communist, and if he, by some weird accident he did end up in a Marxist party, he would soon be thrown out. There’s a technical distinction between serfdom and slavery. The serf is tied to the soil, and so technically cannot be removed from the estate on which he or she is settled. The slave, however, is his master’s personally property, and so can be taken anywhere his master wishes. It’s a fine distinction which was circumvented and ignored in Russia. Serfs could be and were bought and sold between different members of the aristocracy. This is shown in the picture below. Entitled, ‘The Bargain’, it shows the cheap sale of a serf to a noble. Now there are private companies involved in promoting the government’s workfare programme, such as, unfortunately, the Salvation Army, who clearly see it as a way of acquiring unwaged labour, exactly like the noble shown in the picture.

Serf Bargain

The Bargain: A 19th century Russian painting depicting the cheap sale of a serf. A 21st Century equivalent would be a company or charity bidding for a workfare contract. Then and now, workers are being bought and sold without their consent.

There is one difference between 19th century Russian serfdom and its early 21st century equivalent. In Russia artists were actively involved in showing the reality of poverty, feudalism and exploitation. One of that nation’s artistic movements was The Wanderers. They were so called because they moved from town to town with their paintings, which showed the poverty and degradation endured by the country’s working population. It was a form of agit-prop avant le parole. The 20th century equivalent is some ways were the social realist documentary makers and dramatists, like Ken Loach and others, who used film as a way of highlighting contemporary British social problems. I’ve no doubt there are still some like that out there, but nauseatingly they appear to have been replaced by squalid Right-wing propagandists determined to portray those on benefits as feckless, parasitical scroungers. I’ve reblogged a piece from the Oprichnik of the Oprichnik Rising website, whose friend was so misrepresented on one of the BBC’s programmes. This week the Tory linked Love Productions broadcast a documentary, Benefits Street, which was similarly biased. Tom Pride has extensively covered it, and the threats of violence it generated from Right-wing outraged viewers to his disgust over at Pride’s Purge. We need someone like The Wanderers in this country, to expose the growing workfare serfdom here.

Once upon a time Russian revolutionaries and intellectuals, like Turgenev, looked at their country and asked ‘Who can be happy in Russia?’ With the return of serfdom in the guise of workfare to Britain, we can turn the question round, and ask ‘Who can be happy in Britain?’

Atheism, Materialism and Pre-Revolutionary Russian Radicalism

April 23, 2008

In my earlier blog posts on the persecution of Christianity in Soviet Russia, I discussed the origins of the Communist attacks on religion and people of faith in the atheism and materialism that formed an integral part of Marxism itself. This seems odd, even profoundly mistaken to many people given the apparent lack of connection between the Communist political programme and the defining tenet of atheism that there is no God or gods. However, metaphysical beliefs about the fundamental nature of reality have throughout history informed the nature and essential political and social institutions of cultures and civilisations around the world. Before the secularisation of society beginning in the 18th century, religion to a greater or lesser extent provided the basis for the justification of political and social institutions. By denying the existence of God and the value of religion, atheism challenged the metaphysical basis of society, and demanded its radical restructuring according to secular political ideologies. Rather than simply being about the non-existence of God, 18th century religious scepticism was necessarily part of a wider debate about the nature of society itself.  

Atheism in Marxism and Early 19th century Russian Radicalism

Marx was strongly influenced in his critique of contemporary 19th century society by the Humanism of Ludwig Feuerbach, whose theory that God was merely a projection of humanity’s own alienated nature caused Marx to consider that all social criticism began with religious criticism, and to state that ‘the abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness’. 1 As a result, the Soviet state attacked and persecuted religion and promoted atheism in an attempt to create an atheist, Communist state. However, the connection between atheism and militant political radicalism predated the emergence of Marxism in Russia, dating back to the 18th century philosophes in France and the radical, violent opposition to the French ancien regime and contemporary European civilisation. French positivism, utopian socialism and some German Left-Hegelian ideas entered Russia in the 1840s. The literary circle around M.V. Butashevich-Petrashevsky, before its dissolution by the Tsar’s secret police, actively promoted the ideas of the French utopian socialist Fourier, for example. 2 Deeply concerned by the backward state of Russian society, and particularly serfdom, and the political oppression of Tsarist autocracy, Russian radicals such as Nikolai Chernyshevsky, Nikolai Dobrolyubov and Dmitry Pisarev turned for solutions to their country’s political and social problems to atheism, materialism and western science. 3 This generation of dedicated revolutionaries was later depicted and epitomised by the great Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev in the character of Bazarov in his novel, Fathers and Children. In it, Turgenev attempted to describe the confrontation between the old generation of Russian liberals and traditional civilisation with the younger generation of Russian radicals and their harsh positivism, which had no use for anything that could not be established rationally.  In the novel, Bazarov is a dedicated materialist and revolutionary. A self-described Nihilist, he attacks and rejects anything that cannot be established by rational, empirical science, including literature, philosophy, the beauty of art and nature, tradition, authority, religion, intuition, and all uncriticised assumptions, whether of conservatives, liberals, populists or socialists. 4 Bazarov recommends to his friends contemporary popular explositions of materialism, such as Buchner’s Kraft und Stoff. 5 As part of his personal project to establish science as the only true knowledge, Bazarov dissects frogs. 6 The book was immediately controversial amongst the Russian left, with some feeling that Turgenev had betrayed them by portraying them as Bazarov. Others strongly supported Turgenev. The radical literary critic, Pisarev, declared that he identified with Bazarov, and that the character showed that true progress would not come from tradition, but through active, self-emancipated, independent people like Bazarov who were free from romanticism and religion. 7 Mikhail Katkov, the editor of the Russian Herald, the review in which Fathers and Children originally appeared, presented his own perspective on the character in an unsigned review in his magazine. Bazarov, Katkov felt, was not interested in scientific truth, otherwise he would not promote cheap materialist tracts, which were nothing but materialist propaganda. Similarly, Bazarov dissected frogs not because of any genuine interest in science, but simply as a method of rejecting civilised and traditional values. Indeed, Bazarov and the other Nihilists were not true scientists genuinely interested in research, but political propagandists offering radical slogans and diatribes in place of hard, scientific fact. 8 Bazarov has been described as the first Bolshevik, despite the fact the character was as critical of socialism as of the other ideologies he considered to be unscientific. 9 Despite his critical stance towards socialism, Bazarov nevertheless shared the later Soviet regime’s claim to represent atheism and science in his revolutionary views.

Religious Scepticism and 18th Century Revolutionary Ideology

Bazarov’s violent rejection of existing culture was shared by some of the radical atheists of the 18th century. Sylvain Marechal, in his Dictionnaire des athees, demanded the destruction of Christian civilisation, declaring that

‘the utter destruction of a long-standing and imposing error, which affects everything in existence, which distorts everything, virtue itself included, which is a pitfall for the weak, a lever for the strong, and a barrier to genius – the utter destruction of such a gigantic error would chyange the face of the world.’ 10 This attack on Christianity culminated in the attempted suppression of Christianity in favour of the Cult of Pure Reason in revolutionary France, and the demands of Hebertists for the absolute suppression of religious belief as a whole. Marechal himself was a Communist, who, during the French Revolution wrote a Manifesto of the Equals to promote his radical political views. 11

In fact hostility to Christianity and organised religion in French revolutionary ideology extended far beyond Communists like Marechal. Philosophers and political theorists such as Helvetius and Rousseau criticised Christianity not just for being false in their view, but also for being unscientific and preaching a destructive morality in conflict with the loyalty required by the state. One could not be both a citizen and a Christian, according to Rousseau, because of this conflict in loyalties. For Helvetius, the conflict between religion and the state would only disappear if the ministers of the legislative body had both temporal and spiritual powers. 12 Rousseau was not an atheist, and looked back to the ancient Greek city states for the type of civic religion he felt would produce morality and virtue, while Helvetius believed this could be produced simply by social legislation and institutions. 13

Just as 18th century atheism viewed humanity as a machine, rather than an ensouled individual, as in LaMettrie’s book L’Homme Machine, so contemporary radical philosophers also viewed society in mechanistic terms. In his 1755 political treatise, Code de la Nature, Morelly declared that society was a marvellous automatic machine’. 14 Based on the same materialist determinism that influenced Baron d’Holbach and Helvetius’ 1758 De l’Esprit, the radical philosophers of the French revolution believed that they had found the basic rationality that would allow the laws of justice to be formed with the same accuracy and certainty as the natural sciences.  They therefore believed in a kind of cosmic pragmatism, in which it would be possible to create a state in which only those acting against the natural order, the foolish and wicked, would fail to be virtuous. 15 The result was the inflexible, doctrinaire attitudes of the French revolutionaries that resulted in the massacre of hundred of thousands in order to create a new, perfect, revolutionary state and society founded on immutable, rational principles. The failure of these ideologies to recognise the reality of human nature as fundamentally flawed, and their consequent impracticality, was recognised by some of the revolutionaries themselves. Salle, a liberal member of the Gironde, in 1792 wrote in alarm to Dubois-Crance, remarking that ‘the principles in their metaphysical abstractness and in the form in which they are being constantly analysed in this society – no government can be founded on them; a principle cannot be rigorously applied to political association, for the simple reason that a principle admits of no imperfection; and, whatever you may do, men are imperfect.’ 16 Morelly’s book was the first discussion of Communism as an achievable political reality, rather than a utopia, and inspired Gracchus Babeuf’s own attempts to establish it in the 1795 Conspiracy of Equals. 17 Over a century later, the establishment of the Soviet Union as a Marxist state following the Russian Revolution was a continuation of the radical 18th century project to create a perfect state on atheist, materialist principles, an experiment that similarly collapsed through its inability to conform to the realities of human nature rather than abstract political theory.

Conclusion: Marxist Atheism a Continuation of 18th Century Religious Scepticism in Radical Politics

Thus French revolutionary ideology included religious scepticism as part of its radical critique of existing society, and demanded the abolition of Christianity and its replacement by a civil religion as part of its political programme. This is not surprising, considering the quasi-theocratic nature of contemporary European states, where there was no separation of church and state in the modern sense. In 19th century Germany Hegelian philosophy was an official part of the educational system, used to justify the Prussian monarchy, while in the Russian Empire the authority of the tsar was supported by the Orthodox Church. Thus revolutionary ideologies attempted to attack the philosophical and religious basis of the feudal and autocratic regimes they criticised and rejected. However, these ideologies went far beyond advocating the separation of church and state or the toleration of different faiths in religiously neutral state, but advocated instead the abolition of religion, either revealed or as a whole, as part of a complete reorganisation of society. Thus the hostility of the Soviet authorities to religion and their attempts to destroy it were due not just to Marx, but were also part of a long tradition of politically radical atheism dating from the 18th century. In their attempts to create a perfect society based on fundamental materialist principles, the atheism of the 18th century French revolutionaries and their successors in Soviet Communism formed part of a general attempt to create a society based on the absence of revealed religion. For these revolutionaries, atheism was about far more than rejecting the existence of God, but was a metaphysical attitude that affected all aspects of society and political theory. 


1. K. Marx, ‘Religion as Opium: Man Makes Religion’ in Paul Helm, ed., Faith and Reason (Oxford, OUP 1999), p. 229.

 2. Victor Terras, A History of Russian Literature (New Haven, Yale University Press 1991), p. 172.

3. Isaiah Berlin, ed. Henry Hardy and Aileen Kelly, Russian Thinkers (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books 1978), p. 19.

4. Berlin, ed. Hardy and Kelly, Russian Thinkers, p. 277.  

5. Berlin, ed. Hardy and Kelly, Russian Thinkers, p. 279.

6. Berlin, ed. Hardy and Kelly, Russian Thinkers, p. 284.

7. Berlin, ed. Hardy and Kelly, Russian Thinkers, p. 282.

8. Berlin, ed., Hardy and Kelly, Russian Thinkers, p. 284.

9. Berlin, ed. Hardy and Kelly, Russian Thinkers, p. 279.

10. Paul Hazard, European Thought in the Eighteenth Century (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books 1954), p. 141.

11. J.L. Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy: Political Theory and Practice during the French Revolution and Beyond (Harmondworth, Penguin Books 1952), pp. 186-7.

12. Talmon, Totalitarian Democracy, p. 22.

13. Talmon, Totalitarian Democracy, p. 23.

14. Talmon, Totalitarian Democracy, p. 17.

15. Talmon, Totalitarian Democracy, p. 18.

16. Talmon, Totalitarian Democracy, pp. 20-1.  

17. Talmon, Totalitarian Democracy, pp. 17-18.