On Russia With Love

Issue section: 

Review of 'Marx and Anglo-Russian Relations and Other Writings', D B Riazanov, Francis Boutle Publishers £10

During the 19th century, constitutional Britain and despotic Russia had one common and abiding interest--the defeat of revolution. In 1848, when the Tsar sent his army to crush the Hungarian Revolution, Lord Palmerston, Britain's foreign secretary, murmured to the Russian ambassador, 'Get it over quickly'. Although Britain and Russia clashed during the Crimean War of 1854-56, the war had a sham quality because Britain sought not to destroy but to contain Russia, so as to save Tsardom for the cause of counter-revolution.

Karl Marx repeatedly lambasted leaders like Palmerston for their servility to Russia and condemned the 'Anglo-Russian slavery' that bound Europe in chains. In 1856 he spent much time researching not only the origins of this Anglo-Russian collusion, but also Russia's rise to power. The result was a pamphlet entitled 'Revelations of the Diplomatic History of the Eighteenth Century'. Shortly before the First World War, the Russian Marxist scholar, David Riazanov (1870-1938), Trotsky's ally and later Stalin's victim, wrote a critical appreciation of this work. His analysis forms the main part of this interesting book, expertly translated and edited by Brian Pearce.

Riazanov's main criticism is that Marx exaggerated Britain's role in Russia's rise to power. During the Great Northern War (1700-21) between Peter the Great of Russia and Charles XII of Sweden, Marx argued that Britain stayed neutral despite its defensive treaty with Sweden because it colluded to give Russia control of the Baltic, a decisive step in the advance of Tsardom westwards.

Riazanov's counter-argument is that Britain tried to avoid antagonising both Sweden and Russia because it was fighting France in the Wars of Spanish Succession (1700-14). Russia was also Britain's most important source of shipbuilding raw materials, which made a sustained alliance with Sweden difficult. Nevertheless, Riazanov points out that Britain repeatedly rejected Russia's overtures for an alliance, much to Peter the Great's anger. In fact, the first alliance between them was in 1742, when Britain proposed it, by which time Russia had already emerged as an equal member of the Concert of Europe. In short, Riazanov rightly argues that Britain turned to Russia for an alliance only when Russia was already strong.

Riazanov's other main criticism is that Marx placed too much emphasis on the impact of the Tartar yoke on Russia's rise to power. The Tartars appeared from the East in the 13th century as part of the great Mongol invasion. They overwhelmed Russia and subjected it to the Tartar Khans, whose rule was characterised by the unbridled exercise of supreme power (unlike western feudalism, where the monarch's power was limited by nobles). In his pamphlet Marx traced this Tartar legacy to the 17th century, where he linked it to the rise of Russian absolutism under Peter the Great.

Riazanov's counter-argument is that Russian absolutism had similar origins to those of European absolutism, which leaned on the rising bourgeoisie to raise the monarch into absolute power over the nobility. He therefore makes much of the penetration into Russia in the 17th century of Dutch and English merchant capital. For Riazanov, the Tartar Khans were not behind Russian absolutism but Anglo-Dutch capital.

Neither view, however, is satisfactory. Marx certainly exaggerated the role of the Tartar yoke (just as Russian populists and anarchists did later) but Riazanov exaggerates the role of Anglo-Dutch capital. Peter the Great's absolutist state was a reaction to the rise of capitalism in the west. But the impact of capitalism made itself felt in Russia mainly through military competition and war with its more advanced neighbours. Russia had to modernise to wage war but, as it lacked a bourgeoisie capable of economic development, the state, suitably invested with absolute power, performed this role instead.

The final two sections of this book address Marx and Engels' views on Poland and the Balkans. Riazanov's essay on Poland is valuable because he shows how Marx and Engels continually adapted their views. However, Riazanov makes a bad mistake when he maintains that Marx and Engels supported the national struggle of the Balkan Slavs of the Ottoman Empire. As Brian Pearce points out, except for a brief moment in 1853, Marx and Engels flatly opposed the struggle of the Balkan Slavs because it played into Russia's hands--just as in our times the struggle of the Kosovan Albanians played into the hands of the United States. This is a valuable book but only if it is read as critically as Riazanov read Karl Marx.