Peter the Great, Reformer or Revolutionary?

By Marc Raeff | Go to book overview

Peter the Great -- an Oriental Despot

G. V. PLEKHANOV

Georgii V. Plekhanov ( 1856-1918) was the father of Russian Marxism
and its most distinguished theoretician. Unlike present-day Soviet (so-called
Marxist) historians, Plekhanov fully accepted Marx's own opinion of Russia's
social and economic backwardness. Following up suggestions made in the 18th
century and by some writers of the Romantic period, Marx singled out "oriental
despotism" as a special type of social organization in which the absolute ruler
(and his bureaucracy) had control of the major tools of production. Applying
this notion to his analysis of Russian history, Plekhanov underscored his coun-
try's backwardness and argued for the absolute necessity of rapid westerniza-
tion, which for him meant the introduction of economic dynamism and a form
of capitalist-bourgeois society (before proceeding to a socialist revolution and
order). In the incompleted History of Russian Social Thought, his only work of
genuine historical scholarship, Plekhanov developed this point of view with re-
spect to Russia's cultural and ideological westernization in the 17th and 18th
centuries. In carrying out his innovations Peter relied on the traditional methods
of "oriental despotism" (i.e. state compulsion and direction), argued Plekhanov.
And this conclusion led Plekhanov to question the effectiveness of the reforms
in providing the framework for a genuine westernization of the country.

WESTERN European theoreticians of enlightened despotism frequently gave expression to their conviction that "compulsion" was necessary. Our Peter has also been called an enlightened despot; this is of course justified. But speaking of Peter's enlightened despotism, we should never forget the particular traits which distinguish the despotism of Oriental monarchies from the absolutism of West European states. The Oriental despot has the right to dispose of the property of his subjects at will; in the absolute monarchies of Western Europe the State could dispose of its subjects' property only within the limits set by law or custom. We should stress that the difference was not due to some kind of moral superiority of Western monarchs over Oriental rulers; it was exclusively the result of the different relationships prevailing among social forces. But the fact remains that in carrying out his reform Peter possessed the unlimited power of an Oriental despot. And he made full use of this unlimited power.

Aiming at the development of Russia's productive forces he began by indissolubly binding to the State all the forces already available. During his first trip abroad he hired many foreign mining specialists. Upon his return he actively promoted the development of mining in European Russia and in Siberia. To insure the success of this endeavor, in 1700 he granted everybody the right to prospect for ores throughout the whole Empire, regardless of the landowner's will. Landowners on whose estates ore deposits were found received preference when petitioning for permission to build factories on these estates. If they did not want to, or could not, take advantage of this privilege, the right was made available to anyone desirous of establishing this kind of new enterprise who had the

From G. V. Plekhanov, Istoriia Russkoi Obshchestvennoi Mysli [History of Russian Social Thought],
vol. II ( Moscow, 1918), pp. 91-97. [Editor's translation]

-91-

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