Academic journal article The Historian

Humane Modernization as a Liberal Ideal: Late Imperial Russia on the Pages of the Herald of Europe, 1891-1904

Academic journal article The Historian

Humane Modernization as a Liberal Ideal: Late Imperial Russia on the Pages of the Herald of Europe, 1891-1904

Article excerpt

IN THE LAST decade of the nineteenth century, Russian Finance Minister Sergei Witte (1849-1915; in office 1892-1903) launched an unprecedented industrialization campaign, which became known as the Witte System. It aimed to propel Russia into the modern age through a combination of protectionist measures, a massive railroad construction project, enormous subsidies for heavy industry, acceptance of the gold standard, and a positive trade balance to encourage and pay back foreign investments. In large part, the Russian peasantry ended up defraying the costs of Witte's economic modernization, which inspired a fascinating debate over economic development alternatives between the Russian Marxists and Populists. Marxism entered Russia not in opposition to capitalism, but on its coattails, because the Marxists supported Witte's program believing that it would usher in capitalism, give birth to a conscious proletariat, and thereby expedite a revolution. The Populists, however, opposed the Witte System because it favored industry at the expense of agricultural development and rural welfare.

Although historians have covered this debate, few have paid attention to the views of the Russian liberals who also articulated a development program. (1) This article explores its components and demonstrates that Russian liberalism took an enormous step in the direction of becoming a viable social movement when it acquired its first clear economic program, which was conceived in the process of analyzing the Marxist and Populist positions. The universally acknowledged mouthpiece of Russian liberalism in the late imperial era, the Herald of Europe (Vestnik Evropy), articulated this program on its pages. A close analysis of the Herald challenges three long-held assumptions about liberal economic thought in late imperial Russia. First, the Marxist and Populist programs were not the only alternatives in the development debate: The liberal position was as popular and even more pragmatic. Second, in the absence of a political sphere of activity, extra-parliamentary institutions of local self-government rather than constitutionalism stood at the center of the liberal program. Third, this emphasis on local conditions demonstrates that Russian liberalism became truly indigenous when economic concerns became essential to its worldview.

The Marxist-Populist debate in the 1890s has obscured the liberal point of view on modernization, which was no less detailed than the Marxist position and in many ways more pragmatic than Populist remedies. (2) Through its polemics with the Marxists, contributors to the Herald criticized the state's economic programs and articulated questions that exposed the costs of modernization, of which the costliest was the late imperial agrarian crisis. Although its strain of liberalism shared the Populist concern for the peasantry, the Herald did not treat the rural population as a messiah, but argued instead for direct local economic empowerment. The Herald group accepted capitalism's growing pains, but unlike the Marxists, it refused to see modernization as a Procrustean bed upon which all excess flesh was cut away and shortcomings were corrected at the expense of the victim's life. Although the Herald welcomed capitalism, it did not treat it as a predetermined teleological phase. Unlike Finance Minister Sergei Witte, the Herald liberals refused to treat the economic sphere as a means to achieve long-term foreign policy interests. On the contrary, the idea of self-government and responsibility, as opposed to economic efficiency or raison d'etat, stood at the center of the Herald's economic views. Furthermore, the Journal championed progressive taxation and the redirection of funds away from industrial development back into the provinces.

The Journal evaluated modernization based on the performance of local self-government institutions known as the zemstvos that Alexander II's Great Reforms had created on two levels (province and district) in Russia's European territories in 1864. …

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