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Russian Political Economy from Utopia to Social Engineering, part II

Socialist Agrarian Utopia in the 1920s: Chayanov

Utopie Socialiste Paysanne dans les années 1920 : Tchayanov
Danila Raskov
p. 123-146


Cet article analyse deux textes utopiques d’Alexandre Tchayanov (1888–1937) : d’une part son texte The Journey of my Brother Alexei to the Land of the Peasant Utopia (1920) et, d’autre part, sa prédiction scientifique du développement futur de l’agriculture dans The Possibilities of Agriculture (1928). Ces publications sont situées dans le contexte des débats sur le socialisme et en particulier du développement de la théorie des systèmes économiques non capitalistes de Tchayanov (1924). La forme de socialisme paysan qu’il imagine, et qui s’appuie du point de vue de l’organisation économique sur une coopération totale inspirée par la critique de la coercition dans le socialisme prolétarien (conforme à ses idées sur l’organisation de l’agriculture collective à grande échelle), permet de porter un regard neuf sur la pensée économique de Tchayanov. L’article discute du rôle de la cellule familiale dans l’utopie paysanne de Tchayanov. Pour Tchayanov, la théorie du développement non capitaliste suppose de répondre à des questions « embarrassantes » sur les incitations des travailleurs, l’usage de la contrainte, ou encore l’émergence d’une nouvelle élite dans la société socialiste. La confrontation partielle d’une utopie paysanne et d’une utopie scientifique permet de mettre en perspective ces enjeux et ces questions. Plus largement, au travers de l’étude de Tchayanov, l’article défend l’idée que les utopies méritent une attention particulière en histoire de la pensée économique et en particulier pour l’évaluation de l’héritage de Tchayanov.

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1. Chayanov, Utopias and Scientific Thinking

1“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing…Progress is the realization of Utopias.” These insightful words by Oscar Wilde (1891, 18) capture the Zeitgeist at the beginning of the 20th century. But were utopian projects a novelty, even then ? Of course, they were not. Western civilization has a propensity for Utopia. This was expressed in the Hellenistic desire to describe the ideal Polis and the Christian search for Heaven on Earth. The new, pseudo-Greek word meaning “the nowhere place” was to accompany the Reformation, the Renaissance and first steps of modern science. It is natural that in any age of revolutions and major social upheaval, utopias rapidly gained significance.

  • 1 In contrast to this positivistic view, Joseph A. Schumpeter underscores in the History of Economic (...)

2Nowadays, with the acknowledgment of the positive epistemological nature of economics, conventional wisdom in economics usually opposes science and utopia.1 It is also true for the Marxist tradition. Engels distinguished between utopian and scientific socialism (Engels, [1878] 1983). Historians of economic thought and methodologists have long criticized the said clear-cut separation between scientific argumentation and literary discourse (Samuels (ed.), 1990). It is thus safer to consider that any theory can become utopian in a certain context and to a certain extent, whereas conversely a utopia can have scientific significance. According to this perspective, one could even proceed in the reverse order to re-examine economic texts as particular expressions of the literary genre of utopias. As Warren Samuels (2003, 203) puts it : “It is quite possible to think of the major schools of economic thought as Platonic idealizations, even though the disciples of several think of them as scientific.” (Samuels, 2003, 203) Various schools of economic thought could be considered as discrete, idealized representations of a complex reality. “The general social theory of Friedrich von Hayek—for example, his theory of the spontaneous order— can be seen as (1) anti-utopian, (2) utopian in its anti-utopianism, and (3) the expression of a particular utopia.” (Samuels, 2003, 204) In the same vein, Hodgson (1995) has criticized the free market ideal and socialism as two utopian visions and offered a meta-utopian discourse—or the comparative theoretical examination of utopias and anti-utopias. Such a view of economic thinking, to which I subscribe, erases the nominal border between genres and leads to examine economic utopias in tune with other types of economic texts on similar subjects.

3Every utopia—as “a place that is nowhere”—denies present-day reality and lays down the collective ideal of a fairer and more harmonious society. It is especially important to re-examine the utopias which accompanied periods of drastic change, and revolutions. The utopias of late Imperial and early Soviet Russia are of particular interest. In this respect, Alexander Bogdanov ([1908]1984)—with Krasnaya zvezda / Red Star—and Alexander Chayanov are the most important Russian economists to have built literary utopias. The preconditions and implications of the ideal organization of social order and technical progress are central to these utopias.

4Throughout the present article, my contention is that economic utopias—or economic aspects within utopias—can help us understand the ideas expressed in academic writings and can reveal the cognitive potential of utopian ideals. Chayanov’s character fits perfectly with our view, in that his texts with a strong utopian flavour (Chayanov, 1920a and 1928) deal with subjects that overlap partly his most academic and systematic contributions to the organization of agrarian economics, particularly On the theory of non-capitalist economic systems (Chayanov, 1924).

5In this paper, I will explore the contribution to utopian writing made by the famous agrarian economist and proponent of peasant farms Alexander Vasil’ievich Chayanov (1888-1937). The discovery of Chayanov in the West dates from 1962, when Daniel Thorner argued that Chayanov was among the first to formulate a theory of peasant economy as a system in its own right (Adamovsky, 2011, 543). The subsequent publication of The Theory of Peasant Economy in 1966 by the American Economic Association, edited by D. Thorner, B. Kerblay and R. Smith, was a major contribution to peasant studies (Harrison, 1975 ; Hunt, 1979 ; Stanziani, 1998), development economics (Wallerstein, 1974 ; Adamovsky, 2011) and economic anthropology (Sahlins, 1971 ; Durrenberger, 1980). In his theory of peasant farming, he assumed that peasants normally do not hire labour and make only limited use of money, while the size of the household as a business depends on demography and life cycles, inasmuch as the level of effort exerted by the family is determined by the relationship between the family’s consumption needs and the drudgery factor associated with their efforts. His studies on family labour farms, cooperation and agrarian reforms are still relevant for the countries where most of the population lives in sparsely populated rural areas.

6Chayanov graduated from a highly reputable Moscow Realschule of Voskresenskii, then he enrolled in Moscow Agrarian Academy where and at age 30 he became a Professor (Kagarlitskii, 1990, 634). His academic career was mainly linked to the Timiriyazev Academy, despite the fact that his world view and academic interests were highly influenced by his studies in Belgium, France, Switzerland, Germany and England. Some of Chayanov’s works were initially published in German, which prompted the discovery of his legacy in the 1960s. Chayanov sympathized with the February Revolution, which failed to stop his acceptance of bolshevism. For more than ten years from 1919 he led an agricultural economics seminar, which was later renamed the Research Institute of Agricultural Economics. The destiny of Chayanov was as tragic as that of the majority of Russian intellectuals of this period (Gerasimov, 1997). After Stalin mentioned Chayanov in 1929, singling him out as an example of antiscientific soviet economists, he was arrested in July 1930 (the trial of “Labor Peasant Party”). In 1937 he was executed by shooting and only in 1987 was his name fully “rehabilitated.”

  • 2 New Populism (or ‘neonarodnichestvo’) is the ideological trend in Soviet Russia of the 1920s that, (...)
  • 3 Vladimir Kosinsky, Nikolai Makarov and Alexander Chelintsev could be attributed to this school.

7The bibliography of Chayanov’s works consists of nearly two hundred pieces on various issues in agrarian economics, cooperation and statistics (Chayanov, 1966, 279-296 ; Chayanov, 1989a, 482-492). However, he had broader interests than this : he is known as a historian of the arts, in particular of the city of Moscow, and is even known as a writer of fantasy prose in the style of the German romantic, Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann. From 1918 to 1928 he published five romantic stories under the pseudonyms X, “Botanist X” and others. In the history of economic thought, Chayanov’s legacy is either labelled ‘neonarodnichestvo’ (New Populism),2 or relegated to the Organization and Production School (Kerblay, 1966, xxvii ; Gloveli, 2000, 344-349). I believe it more appropriate to follow the example of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, and to call this school of thought,3 aimed at the study of peasant economies, “agrarianism” (Georgescu-Roegen, 1960).

  • 4 In Kerblay (1966, lxiv) “The Possibilities of Agriculture.”

8Chayanov was the author of the unfinished peasant utopia Puteshestvie moego brata Alekseya v stranu krestianskoi utopii / The Journey of my Brother Alexei to the Land of the Peasant Utopia (1920) as well as the more rigorously academic essay Vozmojnoe budujee sel’skogo hoziastva / The Possible Future of Agriculture (1928).4 Despite his disagreement with the main tenets of state collectivization, Chayanov had continued putting to the fore his own personal ideas about the organisation of agriculture within a socialist economy, notably through the publication of utopian texts. For all that, his personal ideas also evolved alongside the main issues at stake on the political agenda. As Amiya Bagchi put it, the political agenda had changed from the time of his Peasant Utopia to the essay The Possible Future, and Chayanov’s two utopias testimony for this evolution :

By and large, he was against forcible collectivization and the nationalization of land, and favoured voluntary cooperation among peasants who would retain control over their land. But in the period when the creation of state farms appeared on the political agenda, he worked out a locational plan for such farms and tried to figure out their optimum size. (Bagchi, 1987, 408)

9Obviously, the historical contexts in 1920 and in 1928 were quite different. If in 1920 Chayanov had aspired to cooperative movements and peasant farming, by 1928 the course towards coercive collectivization had become the dominant trend.

10Let us introduce first Chayanov’s The Journey of my Brother Alexei to the Land of the Peasant Utopia that he published in 1920 with state funding, under the pseudonym of Ivan Kremnev. The plot takes us to the Russia of 1984, when the peasantry, ruled by intellectual oligarchy, have taken power and reorganized social and economic life according to the needs of the most modest peasants. The Journey was widely acknowledged by literary critics as a peasant utopia. They considered the author to have no literary talent, yet appreciated the unique combination of two genres : the utopian and the anti-utopian (Shaw, 1963 ; Clark, 1985 ; Kagarlitskii, 1990 ; Shushpanov, 2000). Clark (1985, 180) found The Journey to be “not merely an anti-urbanist tract, but distinctly neo-Slavophile,” because the patriarchal family is a cornerstone of the new society. In a number of other peasant utopians from the same period—those of Yesenin and Klyuev—Clark makes important comments that Chayanov offers a denial (albeit in a less radical form) of the achievements of the city. Yet, his vision is, rather, a synthesis of rationalized farming and the quest for harmony within the individual. Where it concerns aesthetic issues, the format and playfulness of The Journey echoes the avant-garde movement (Clark, 1985, 181). In their historical survey of Russian utopian thinking, Heller and Niqueux (2003, 197) described The Journey as a peasant counter-utopia : a positive project, composed as an alternative to a different project—bolshevism. Dystopias, unlike counter-utopias, are usually not much more than works of criticism. Less frequently, Chayanov’s peasant utopia—The Journey—attracted the attention of economists (Kojima, 2004 ; Coleman and Taitslin, 2008). Kerblay (1966, xliv) underscored the political and ideological agenda :

Under the cover of fiction it expresses a whole school of political thought tending toward populism or anarchism, while at the same time it provides certain insights into Chayanov’s artistic tastes and philosophical inclinations.

  • 5 Yanni Kotsonis (1999) tends to overstate the gap between the enlightened modernizers (“Chayanov’s g (...)

11Kerblay pointed out that the ideals of urban decentralization in Arcadia were borrowed from Kropotkin and were closer to the cosmopolitan Russian intelligentsia than the peasant tradition.5 It is also worth mentioning the thoughtful article of Figurovskaya and Simonov (1988) Chayanov’s Questions, published in an anthology of works on social and cultural aspects of utopias. Nevertheless, Chayanov’s utopian ideas deserve to be re-examined in the context of his theory of socialist economics.

12The Future (1928) appeared in a collection of articles in the section entitled “Scientific and technical utopias.” This twenty six pages long article was not translated into English and was rarely discussed. It represents a genre quite different from The Journey. It was written in a style of the forecast, the purpose was narrower since The Future dealt primary with the technical changes in the nearest 50-100 years perspective. The agriculture is regarded in this short article as a part of industry and large-scale production. At first glance, it reflects the drastic change in Chayanov’s view of the future development of agriculture. The technical revolution he believed would lead to the death of the nineteenth-century peasant agriculture. However, as I will show in the discussion of the boundaries of the scientific utopia, Chayanov kept few reservations. The comparison of the two utopias will appear only in the sections dedicated to the technical progress and the organization of the future agriculture. The Journey as a fiction provided a richer perspective in many questions while I will tackle The Future only when discussing the technical progress and the large scale production.

13I believe that under the assumption that the boundaries between utopias and scientific arguments are porous, especially in periods of theoretical and political upheavals, it is worth studying anew the evolving ideas of Chayanov as expressed in his two utopias—The Journey, 1920, and The Future, 1928—and to confront them with the general views of Chayanov on the theory of non-capitalist economic systems (Chayanov, 1924). The thesis that I uphold in this paper is that the manifestation of peasant socialism that he envisages—with a form of economic organization that is based on total cooperation and apparently inspired by the criticism of extreme coercion evidenced in proletarian socialism—alongside with his thoughts on the new paths to the large-scale collective organization of agriculture, provide us with new insights into Chayanov’s economic thinking and help us interpreting some questions—if not all—raised by Chayanov in his 1924 contribution.

14This paper is structured as follows. In section 2, I come back on the specific meaning of utopias within the context of socialism in Russia and I identify the nexus of Chayanov’s own formulation of the problem of implementing socialism as he put it in 1924, i.e. his own theoretical description of the society of the future that he called “state collectivism.” This section gives the frame of the following discussion. The most important questions were the organization of the society, the incentives of labour and the corruptibility of the new elites, and finally the role of technical progress. The section 3 discusses the role of the family in the social organization according to Chayanov’s peasant utopia. It helps us to understand, in a section 4, Chayanov’s answers to “uncomfortable” theoretical questions about worker incentives, the use of coercion and the implications of a new elite appearing under peasant socialism. Thus, I hope to show that Chayanov’s peasant utopia contains relevant solutions to difficult questions addressed to non-capitalist economic systems. The section 5 confronts The Journey with The Future, which is conceived as a scientific utopia, and discusses the role of economic progress in the evolution of Chayanov’s ideas about the future of agriculture. The striking contrast of the two utopias is obvious. The political agenda and the technological developments forced Chayanov to be less optimistic about the family-run agriculture. Nevertheless, some similarities between the two utopias are highlighted.

2. Making Sense of Socialist Utopia

15Before to enter more specifically into Chayanov’s own vision of socialism, it is worth replacing the rise of utopian thinking within the development of Russian economic thought. As I have showed already, Chayanov’s writings are part of a wide development of Russian economic thought at the end of 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, rightfully considered to be the heyday of Russian economic thought. This is when the works of Mikhail Tugan-Baranovsky, Evgeny Slutsky, Vladimir Dmitriev and Nikolai Kondratiev became known. Barnett characterized the period of 1890-1930 as the “golden age” of Russian economics with two peaks : the first in 1890-1913, and the second in the 1920s (Barnett, 2005, 136-7). Meanwhile, the first years following the revolution of 1917 are considered to be the most utopian in all of Soviet history. Disagreeing with the division between utopia and science, Tugan-Baranovsky opposed a line of thinking typical for the time :

In actual fact, utopian socialism is far more scientific than Engels would admit, and so-called scientific socialism contains far more utopia than was believed by the author of Das Kapital…Utopia is an ideal…An ideal plays the role of a star at night that can be used by a lost traveller to choose the right road… (Tugan-Baranovsky, [1901] 1996, 85-86)

16Karl Manheim, who studied utopia in his “Ideology and Utopia” (1929), identified four ideal types of utopian consciousness in the New Age, which challenge one another : chiliastic, liberal-humanist, conservative and social-communist (Manheim, [1929] 1994). The fundamental difference between a utopia and an ideology, according to Manheim’s thinking, is that ideology is limited by a framework previously laid out by the actual social and economic structure of the community, whereas utopia presupposes an escape from the existing order. Nevertheless, we can see mutual points of contact within the structures of such types. Both liberal and socialist utopias are based on the rich potential of technical progress, on freedom (emancipation) and on equality, while a liberal utopia is radicalized within a socialist one. Conservative and socialist utopias presuppose strong centralized authority, in the form of a force that knows what is right and just. In a socialist utopia (the model closest to the utopias of Russian economists at the beginning of the century) “an absolutist reality becomes the social and economic structure of society.” (Manheim, [1929] 1994, 202)

  • 6 This idea, of comparing Chayanov the theoretician and the utopian, was echoed in the article by Nad (...)

17Socialist utopias of the time take the criticism of capitalism as their starting point ; they also provide scenarios as the possible ways to implement a new economic system. In the new social and economic structure of society, according to the thinking of these socialist authors, there will be no money, private property, or hired labour. Chayanov is no exception, and he himself developed a fully integrated discussion of socialism in his article “On the Question of the Theory of Non-Capitalist Economic Systems” (1924) Chayanov sums up the then-standard view of “communism” or “state collectivism,” and he formulates theoretical questions, the resolution of which is necessary for the practical implementation of this system.6 No clear theory, however, was produced. The new social order, according to Marx’s legacy, was to be free from exploitation, from money, and from property. The goal was to create Marxist socialism. In this work, Chayanov indicates that, for his predecessors Nikolay Bukharin and Evgeny Varga,

…communism is an economic system in which all the economic fundamentals of capitalist society–capital, interest on capital, wages, rent–are completely eliminated, while the whole technological apparatus of the present economy has been preserved and even further improved. (Chayanov, [1924] 1966, 23)

18This economic system cannot come into existence spontaneously ; the implementation of this plan inevitably presupposes elements of non-economic enforcement. A comparison of capitalism with various non-capitalist economic systems—such as the family, slavery, serfdom, feudalism and communism—shows that the defining elements of state collectivism, or socialism, according to Chayanov’s thinking, are threefold : i) a state production plan, ii) a non-economic means of coercion, and iii) technical progress. The first two aspects of state collectivism deal with the institutional setting of the socialist society. Actually, Chayanov considers the problem of the production plan and the one of coercion as closely related, and he had given an early warning about the limited potential of coercion : “One cannot apply the force of the state to mould a buffalo into the shape of a camel, and at the same time expect the animal to go on breathing.” (Chayanov, 1919, 12) Thus, the driving mechanism of socialist economics, as Chayanov sees it, depends upon the ability to give a comprehensive answer to three intimately connected questions :

1. With the help of which method and according to what principles will the degree of social labour exertion and the required amount of demand satisfaction, as well as the necessary equilibrium between the two, be determined, when state production and consumption plans are established ?

  • 7 Another version of this question: “Why should I work harder than my neighbor when he and I get paid (...)

2. By what means is the individual worker to be driven to labour, so that he does not consider as drudgery the input expected of him under the production plan, and really carries it out in practice ?7

3. Which measures make it possible to prevent in the socialist society on the basis of new production relations the danger of a new class stratification being created that might start forms of distributing the national product which would deprive the whole regime of its original high ideals ? (Chayanov, [1924] 1966, 24)

19In other words, the first question deals with the quality of information used for the production and consumption plan. The second question refers directly to the organizational structure of such a management system, in which a new hierarchy or nomenklatura comes into being. How is it possible to avoid redistribution of the social product in the sole interests of the nomenklatura or the new elite, thus discrediting the “ideal content” of the system ? The third question that Chayanov asks focuses on labour incentives. On the one hand, the problem should be resolved by the application of consciousness and enthusiasm, as well as by material incentives. On the other hand, it is clear that an implementation of the plan can only be achieved by the use of non-economic violence. Consequently, the problem of individual incentives and freedoms becomes ever more relevant. The pathos in Marx’s early writings was based on the idea that the problem of alienation would be resolved in communism. In state collectivism or “coarse communism” the product of labour is alienated not in favour of the employer, but for the benefit of the state, which replaces the private owner (Marx, [1844] 2000). The lot of the hired labourer essentially remains unchanged, and exploitation remains. As we shall see, this is insightfully captured in Chayanov’s utopia.

20Technical progress, the development of science and applied research are to be the foundations of this society of the future. In this sense, both liberal and socialist utopias share a faith in science and progress. Fordism is common, broadly symbolizing the shape of future societies. The development of science and technology are of great importance to these utopian constructs. Technical process of production as the economic category unifies different economic systems like communism, peasant economy and family economy (Chayanov, 1924, 25).

21Now, the whole set of questions are addressed in Chayanov’s utopia. They offer the possibility to deal with all those questions altogether and to simulate in a speculative way the viability of the whole. Our contention is that it is utopias that could offer answers to “uncomfortable questions” : How does one compile production and consumption plans ? How can one prevent the corruption of the new elite and ensure fair distribution ? What could be the incentives for labour ? The discussion of this section also helped to find key elements in understanding socialist utopia. Main economic categories of socialism or “state collectivism” to be discussed are the social and economic structure (key to Manheim), technical progress, non-economic coercion and state production plans. Thus, next sessions will discuss the elite and labour incentives and technical progress, which appear to be rethought by Chayanov in 1928. Somehow Chayanov understood that the technical progress will transform and even kill agriculture in its traditional form.

22Instead of addressing those questions directly, Chayanov’s utopias provide a solution to a whole set of problems from the point of view of what he sees as the fundamental basis for regulating individual needs in the new society : the family.

3. Family and the Society of the Future

23Utopias usually reject existing realities, and such a rejection is the starting point for most utopias. The Journey of my Brother Alexei to the Land of Peasant Utopia is no exception. One of the main originalities of Chayanov’s utopia is that it openly rejects the idea of revolutionary conquest. By the 1930s, such a premise had already become unmentionable in public.

24The story begins in the near future, with the discussion of a fictitious decree of October 21, 1921, that dictates the abolition of the family, which is declared to be a throwback to capitalism. The hero, Alexei Vasilievich Kremnev (brother of the author whose pseudonym is also Kremnev), is tired after attending a political rally with slogans like : “By destroying the family hearth we are dealing the final blow to the bourgeois system !” (Chayanov, [1920] 1976, 72) Falling asleep, he dreams of travelling to the 1984 peasant Eden where the cities are abolished, the peasant agriculture prevails over the industry and the work is mostly creative and harmonious. The world in his dream is just the opposite of the proletarian socialism of 1921. Caught in his dream, Alexei would settle in this Eden and live in Minin’s patriarchal family, where he is treated as a foreigner.

  • 8 Preserving the family in the society of the future was often a matter of concern in Russian literar (...)

25Indeed, the possibility of preserving the peasant family under socialism is the central issue raised by Chayanov in The Journey.8 The plot is clearly designed to reflect the dialectic character of the history. It is no coincidence that the famous Russian writer and philosopher Alexander Herzen (1812-1870) believed that the young and fresh will replace the old was to become a form of utopian slogan :

Socialism in all its aspects will grow to the utmost limits, to absurdity. Then again, a cry of refusal will break from the titanic breast of the revolutionary minority, and there will be once more a mortal struggle in which socialism, in the position of today conservatism, will be defeated by another, unknown revolution still to come. (Chayanov, [1920] 1976, 74)

26This impending revolution, according to The Journey, will be a peasant revolt. If for Yakov Okunev, in his novel Gryadushiy mir / The Forthcoming World (1923), the Earth is seen as an “endless, limitless, international city,” like the World United States of the Soviet republics, in this peasant utopia placed in the year 1984, all cities of more than 20,000 residents have been disbanded, as the peasants seized power. We can immediately see the elements of a conservative revolution. Kremnev can see that society enjoys an elevated state of culture and prosperity. The style is a “russified Babylon,” reminiscent of the Russia of antiquity. A time-traveller, Alexei Kremnev, finding himself in 1984 is struck by the meticulous decoration, the exaggerated detail and luxury, recreating the style of the eighteenth century.

  • 9 Desiatina - a Russian unit of land from the end of the 15th century, the desiatina was originally e (...)

27The city ceases to be the locus of society. Instead, the foundation of society is the peasant, family-based economy. There is a faint echo here of Fourier’s Phalanstery, with his predominantly peasant labour, seen as harmonious for the development of the individual. Due to the density of the population, the land allotment is 3-4 desiatinas9 per family, blurring the line between the city and villages.

28The social and economic structure is the key question that Kremnev chooses to explore. A response given by Nikifor Alexeevich Minin, a member of the elite in the new society, offers this clarification :

Our economic system, like that of ancient Rus’, is founded on the individual peasant farm. We considered it, and still do so, the ideal model of economic activity. In it, man confronts nature ; in it, labour comes onto creative contact with all the forces of the cosmos to produce new forms of existence. Every workman is a creator, each manifestation of his individuality represents the art of work. (Chayanov, [1920] 1976, 88)

29In some respects, the utopian world described in The Journey turns out to be similar to that of Kropotkin (1908) and, of course, to Marx’s early ideas on communism in his “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts” of 1844. Communism involves overcoming man’s alienation from the products of his labour, from nature itself and from the human collective.

30Unlike capitalism, the peasant economy has become the centre of that new system that Kremnev foresaw. The common ground shared with capitalism includes automatic regulation and competition mechanisms “without recourse to state compulsion of a non-economic nature” (Chayanov, [1920] 1976, 183). This projective future is built on theoretical calculations. By comparing various structures in his “economic palaeontology” of 1924, Chayanov upholds that out of a multitude of possible national economic systems, there are two that do not need non-economic state coercion : capitalism on the one hand and the family, commodity-based economy on the other hand (Chayanov, [1924] 1989, 140). State collectivism in politics and a “mass collective economy” are seen as the opposites of utopian ideal. The utopian ideal is simple : to live and not to even remember the existence of the state and coercive authority, with the peasant economy and the family at the root of social organization. Thus, the ideals of socialism and conservatism converge.

31Actually, the peasant utopia features competition in both politics and the realm of ideas. A pluralist view of the world, much like post-modern culture, allows a mixing of styles and epochs. For instance, one public sculpture thus brings together, in a friendly and mutually-supportive group, Lenin, Kerensky and Milyukov, respectively the chief revolutionary, a representative of the bourgeois Temporary Government, and a liberal academic (Chayanov, [1920] 1976, 171). Capitalist solutions are preserved where family and collective ones are impossible :

However, we still have private initiative of capitalist type ; in those areas where collectively managed enterprise are ineffective, and in those cases where an organizing can overcome, thanks to advanced technology, the effects of our Draconian taxation. (Chayanov, [1920] 1976, 90)

32At last, in this peasant utopia, the state retains the property of the main strategic industries and resources : the forestry, oil and coal industries. A combination of different systems is thus needed for competition and to prevent stagnation. The advanced technology and the industry exist but they are hidden.

33After the revolution the Soviet Russia was forced to create new family codes (1918 and 1926) quite different and much more liberal comparing with the church marriage. Among other things, the equality of man and woman, the easiness of divorces were introduced. Nevertheless, some experimental practices went even further : the socialization of women, the communities of free love etc. It is interesting to see the importance it is given in the anthology Life and technology of the future (Zhizn’, 1928), in which Chayanov’s The Future was published. The only excerpt from Plato’s Republic is dedicated to the issue of the family : specifically, to the selection and commonality of wives (Zhizn’, 1928, 19). Moreover, in their comments the compilers of this anthology specifically state that marriage is inherently short-term, and designed for bearing children from the best men and women, and that men “have the right to live simultaneously with other women” (Zhizn’, 1928, 21). Thomas More’s views on strict monogamy and disallowing the commonality of wives are characterized as reactionary. Tommaso Campanella is interpreted as if he spoke out against marriage between individuals, while Fourier’s views on marriage and free love are described in the greatest detail (Zhizn’, 1928, 99-107). It shows us additionally that Chayanov’s ideas on family and marriage were far from being mainstream.

34On this topic, it is interesting to comment on Chayanov’s evolution regarding the role of the family. In 1920, Chayanov mostly opposes the destruction of family and defends in his peasant utopia a conservative vision of the family. One of the chapters is even entitled in this vein : the chapter “convincing those so inclined that the family is the family, and ever shall be” (Chayanov, [1920] 1976, 83). However, by 1928, Chayanov envisaged the agriculture of the future stripped of the family. The pluralism of values is contrasted with the rational, scientific approach, close to the cost-benefit analysis. “The arbitrariness of Nikolaos the Wonderworker” (Saint Nicholas – D.R.) from the “burdensome legacy of the pre-revolutionary feudalist regime” is contrasted with the science laboratories of “our Soviet Union” (Chayanov, 1928, 266, 288). However, contrarily to The Journey, the future outlined in 1928 no longer sees the family as the foundation of agriculture. Overpopulation and intensified farming appear to force major social change. Much of the population resides in garden cities, and only the emotional rhetoric around the red rose and its “heady, fresh and sweet aroma” is an indirect reference to the peasant utopia, but there is not a single direct mention of the family. Chayanov drastically changed his mind regarding family based agricultural economy due to the political change of late 1920s and the new technological possibilities that he underrated before. As Kerblay explained : “The theory of peasant economy had been developed on the assumption of a preindustrial world.” (ibid., lxiii)

35Thus, at the centre of the social and economic structure of the society in The Journey we find a creative personality, who develops best within the family and, as a result, within the framework of small peasant enterprise. This individual is free, the political structure is not monopolized, and each individual can choose the mode of governance : royal principalities, religious sectarianism or democratic councils. The state is secondary to the individual and to the family. Progress in such a form of archaic socialism is achieved by means of maintaining the capitalist framework of mass production, the value of capitalism is in preserving the competitive environment for family businesses. Thus, the family type of agriculture’s economic and social organization mitigates the problem of labour incentives. These incentives are also enhanced by education and culture that are enforced by enlighten elite. By contrast, The Future of 1928 is silent about the family type social organization. Such drastic change in ideals could be explained by the change of political situation in Soviet Russia and the inner decision of Chayanov to cognitively cooperate with the soviet regime. He refused to emigrate in 1922-23 and decided to persuade himself “to create the inner mood which could allow to see Russia and its living forces through USSR” as he confessed in his letters (Chayanov, 1995, 509). He could not imagine that the iron machine of new socialism would absorb not only the traditional peasant family but the best soviet economists too.

36Further, we shall discuss in depth the incentives issue under socialism in a broader context. Incentives remain a key issue, no matter what particular type of social organization is regarded : How are new elites to remain ideal and preserved from corruption ? What are the incentives to work ? These central questions for Chayanov’s critique of socialism are dealt with in his utopian thinking.

4. Incentives and the “Sophisticated Oligarchy”

37The compilation of a rational plan is the attribute of a socialist utopia. For instance, in Okunev’s utopian novel, everything is organized under a universal plan by the year 2123 (Okunev, 1923). Total information awareness—provided with the assistance of an “ideograph” who can read thoughts remotely—and precise accounting make it possible to understand where units of labour should be re-allocated. People on Mars are happy to change their work : “Today I am to read a lecture. Yesterday I operated an excavator. Tomorrow I intend to work at a chemical factory. We freely choose to change the work we do, according to our wishes.” (Okunev, 1923, 44)

38Such universal and rational planning is absent in Chayanov’s peasant utopia. However, some of these elements are nevertheless necessary, as not all problems can be resolved automatically. For instance, the equalization of incomes in peasant economies leads to slower accrual, and a reduction in charitable giving. The key role in resolving this and other problems that arise is assigned to a special elite, which knows and understands what needs to be done, and how. This is potentially the starting point for a problem that Chayanov identifies in the framework of the socialist structure : stratification, the separation of the oligarchy, and the internal decomposition of initial high ideals. A change in the social order involves serious losses and sacrifices, but no such reorganization is free of the appearance of an elite—a minority that plays a management role. Given the constants of human nature, the elite will appear in both proletarian socialism and in a peasant republic. The shortcomings in the new order of the Soviet state that Chayanov describes so precisely still exist in this new society, where the peasantry constitutes a formal hegemony. This troubling lack of confidence in the just management of the future peasant republic introduces an element of genre diversity. In the peasant utopia, we can clearly identify irony and sarcasm, placing the work on the borderline between utopia and anti-utopia.

39The “sophisticated oligarchy” is armed with knowledge of the structure of consumption, allowing indirect taxation according to a progressive scale, and is also endowed with subtle means of public re-education. The hero of The Journey asks an anachronistic question : “What are the incentives for the ‘oligarchy of gifted enthusiasts’ to form the peasant ideal ?” After a detailed description of the new society, Minin as a part of the new elite guesses at one of the greatest imperfections :

But this is horrible ! This is the worst of all tyrannies ! These associations of yours that resurrect the German anthropologists and the French freemasons are the equal of any state terror. Why have a state, indeed, when your whole set-up is no more than a sophisticated oligarchy of a couple of dozen very clever and ambitious man. (Chayanov, [1920] 1976, 100)

40The response to such questions turns out to be simple and familiar : Minin denounces Kremnev, the main protagonist of The Journey as a German spy. The ‘gifted enthusiasts’, as representatives of the new elite are, conversely, not even aware of such questions. Ironically, ten years after the appearance of his peasant utopia, in July of 1930, Chayanov was arrested on a false accusation of belonging to the “peasant labour party,” he was broken, gave self-incriminating testimony, and was executed by shooting in 1937 (Muraviev, 1989).

41In Chayanov’s ideal, social order is free of non-economic coercion by the state, but the element of violence is needed to uphold this idea. For example, the decision to disband cities and turn them into endless villages and gardens had to be defended by the future elite, weapon-in-hand, and then someone had to explain to the peasants what advantages this new order offers.

42Let us return to Chayanov’s question about relative labour incentives. In many utopias, coercion was replaced by public spiritedness and re-education, by analogy with Sparta. In the peasant utopia the question finds a paradoxical solution. On the one hand, this is done by methods such as piece-rate pay, profit-sharing, bonuses, and on the other hand there is a battle against rent incomes, coupled with “draconian taxes,” and the destruction of shareholder companies and private loan intermediaries. Clearly, the problem of incentives forces Chayanov to seek solutions in a system that combines multiple regimes, i.e. given the co-existence of elements of both socialism and capitalism. The answer is socialism and cooperation in agriculture, and capitalism in mass industrial production.

43On the whole, this literary work gives a very complete presentation of Chayanov’s views on the problems of socialism. Planned economies, in his opinion, must be complemented by elements of competition and chaos, which is possible in a mixed economy. Non-economic coercion is concealed behind public spiritedness, re-education and enlightenment of the elite. The replacement of the social order inevitably implies the appearance of a new elite or “sophisticated oligarchy.” This can be considered the weakest link in the peasant utopia as a society, from the viewpoint of management ; it hinders both “voluntary public construction” and “freedom from authority.”

5. Technical Progress and the Boundaries of Utopia

44In section 1, I have indicated that Chayanov’s overall representation of the socialist society in 1924 is led by two main issues : the concrete organization of a planned system of production (including information and incentives issues) and the necessity of technical progress. However, this last issue is given an unbalanced treatment in his utopian descriptions of the future of socialism.

45For the majority of the utopians at the beginning of the twentieth century, an expectation of immediate technical progress is typical—progress that would help to create a new way of life for human society. This is also typical for anti-utopias : in Huxley’s Brave New World, events kick off in year 632 ‘after Ford’, by the new calendar. As regards the development of technology, it is interesting to compare Chayanov’s two utopias : The Journey of 1920, in which technological progress is awarded a very modest role, and the scientific utopia of 1928 where radical technological revolution leads to the deep agricultural reform and a literal rejection of land cultivation in the traditional sense. Moreover, it is of little importance that it is precisely technological progress that is the common ground shared by socialism and capitalism. There are sparse technological innovations in The Journey, and they are hardly given any attention whatsoever. One of the few exceptions is control of the weather using magnet stations (Chayanov, [1920] 1976, 182). Rain becomes a social good, once it is organized along rational lines. Mastering the laws of nature also makes it possible to achieve military goals. The war with Germany is won by firing thunderclaps.

46More attention is given to fine art, and to the ‘retro’ style, than to technology. Automobiles share the road with horse-drawn carriages. Women dress in sarafans with petticoats. Tea is only served from a sizzling, coal-fired samovar. The main sporting event is knucklebones (babki) (Chayanov, [1920] 1976, 170). The conservative revolution also leaves its mark on the popularity, even the celebration, of manual labour. Day-to-day objects, down to the tiniest detail, are painstakingly hand-wrought. This prompted P. Vorovsky, in the foreword to the 1920 publication, similarly to Charlie Men who is often taken for Kremnev, to characterize the ideals of this utopia as extremely reactionary. Nadejda Figurovskaya and Veniamin Simonov (1998) treated this ideal with scepticism and delegated the concept thus formulated to a “third way,” comparing it to Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful (1973). For this later author, harmony in the peasant way of life is more important than technological progress. Elements of capitalism are to be retained in industry, to maintain efficiency. In this way the ideal becomes a complex model with multiple criteria for assessment of values, from the purely market-linked determination of value to moral determination (in terms of natural order).

47A very different picture is drawn in the scientific utopia of 1928, intended to inspire enthusiasm and formulate absolute ideals. In this anthology, the utopians of the past are reinterpreted, while new prospects are also outlined : new sources of energy, victory over sleep, reversing the aging process, organ transplants, eugenics and control of the birth rate. Fantasy and science go hand-in-hand. In this anthology, Chayanov appears as a serious scholar diligently extrapolating current trends. The basis for these predictions is the development of science, and technological progress.

48According to Chayanov, the future of agriculture is paradoxical ; he describes “the rejection of agriculture in the modern sense of the word,” and a “shift [from agriculture] to the production of nutritious substances and textiles in factories, much like the products of heavy and light industry” (Chayanov, 1928, 260-261) Now, agriculture no longer requires land but only sufficient moisture and sunlight. Factories, chemistry, economies of scale and rational calculation become the essential elements of modern agriculture. To some extent, Chayanov did indeed anticipate the main vector of agrarian development. Fertilizers, selective breeding, land reclamation, the use of artificial additives, and the industrial production of nutritious substances have become a day-to-day reality. However, Chayanov was wrong to think that these changes could be achievable only within the framework of a planned economy (Chayanov, 1928, 283-284) as well as he was wrong to think that the peasant family was the future of socialism.

49The questions about the equilibrium, the motivation and the class stratification are not in the focus of 1928’s essay. Nevertheless, these questions remain to be relevant. In a way Chayanov seems to believe that the science and the technological progress may help to find the equilibrium between plan production and the demand satisfaction, and to mitigate the issue of incentives (less drudgery work). The responsibility of new elite would be the choice between “the final catastrophe,” “the world wasteland” and the garden “of the red roses with stupefying, fresh, sweet aroma” (1928, 284-285).

50Of particular interest here are the special caveats that indicate the limits of the utopia and the sacrifices that would have to be made. The cost of implementing the utopia could be “a space of weed-covered wasteland that stretches around much of the world,” and the elimination of the Aral Sea. Here one can see a continuation of the same anti-utopian thread, that began with Fyodor Dostoevsky’s discussion of a “child’s tear” in “Brothers Karamazov” (1880). Furthermore, the spread of technical progress is not covering all the production activities. There are still some products that can be produced using traditional technologies, such as flowers, wines and fruits will be produced using traditional technologies, forming a sort of oasis within the new world described by this scientific utopia :

The production of certain fruits and wines, the fine aromas and taste qualities of which mass-produced items will for a long time yet remain unable to substitute. (Chayanov, 1928, 261)

51Luxurious beds of roses and violets will replace agricultural fields. In these caveats alone, we can see an identical concept in both utopias : if flowers, fruits and wines must be cultivated using the old technologies, then why cannot bread and vegetables be placed in the same group ? Nevertheless, Chayanov himself sees no way in coming back to the peasant Eden described in 1920. Even if he expressed his scepticism with respect to an artificially-created “homunculus” :

To write down the formula for protein and declare that it is protoplasm is no different to writing out the formula for calcium dioxide, of which marble consists, and saying that it is the Venus de Milo. (Chayanov, 1928, 282)

52Thus, the similarities that remain only sharpen the strong differences between The Journey and The Future. In 1928 the technological progress is aimed to solve all the difficult problems. As we mentioned before, the peasant economy was based on the preindustrial technology. In a way the technological progress is able to handle the problem of productivity which is strictly connected to the incentives. The new world is to be built not by labour but by the iron machine which has no problem with incentives.

6. Conclusion

53Chayanov’s socialist agrarian utopian texts illustrate different variations on the future of the Russian society. The central issue of any socialist utopia—the socio-economics organization of society—is solved differently in the two texts. The Journey of 1920 is primarily focused on the family while The Future deals only with the large-scale efficient enterprises. The discussion of the development of taste and culture among the peasantry helps to find the ways of the new incentives even if the corruption of the elite remains the most difficult problem for The Journey. Finally, The Future gives more optimistic perspectives on the potential of technical progress that could overcome the problem related to labour incentives.

54A partial comparison of the peasant utopia of 1920, written as a work of literature, and the utopia of 1928, created in the style of a scientific research treatise, exposes certain typological distinctions. At the centre of the peasant utopia, there is an approach based on values, promoting the preservation of the family household. It is within the framework of this social order that Chayanov envisaged a resolution of the core problems of socialism. State coercion is replaced with “freedom from authority,” a monopoly on the political system is replaced by democratic pluralism, the planned economy is complemented with elements of competition, and technical progress is endowed with a framework that does not disrupt the harmony of man and nature (peasant Eden).

55However, some scepticism remains. As in ‘state collectivism’, so in the new peasant order it is the elite that governs, and the ‘sophisticated oligarchy’ is retained, which further clarifies the internal foundations of this social order. The peasant utopia develops the socialist utopia, and challenges it at the same time. In addition, one can see in these utopias certain elements of conservatism and anarchism. Conservatism influences culture, religion, art and, primarily, the family. The striving to reduce to a minimum the functions of the state and diminish as much as possible the factor of coercion also coincides with the hopes of the anarchists.

56The style of the 1928 utopia and the predictive strength it demonstrates come close to transforming into a scientific prognosis. It precisely identifies the main development vector of agriculture—towards factory-based, large-scale technologies. It has to be admitted that in 1920 some other, courageous alternatives were still being entertained, while by 1928 the planned economy, non-economic coercion and technological progress were no longer subject to discussion. Even if the exact causes of this change in Chayanov’s ideals are unknown we can mention the most important circumstances. The political agenda had changed dramatically between 1920 and 1928. Like many other professionals Chayanov decided to put himself at the service of new purposes of collectivization and large farms creation by calculating their optimum size. He refused to emigrate and did hope to be useful in Russia. Unfortunately, his destiny was tragic. Sterni, a protagonist of Alexander Bogdanov’s utopia Red Star, a mathematician on Mars expressed this tragedy putting that “even in those instances where socialism prevails and triumphs, its character will be perverted deeply and for a long time to come by years of encirclement, unavoidable terror and militarism, and the barbarian patriotism that is their inevitable consequence” (Bogdanov, [1908]1984, 114).

57It is worth mentioning that Chayanov’s utopian thinking informs any re-examination of his academic discussions of non-capitalist economic systems and, especially, the peasant economy in its traditional and socialist forms. The 1928 scientific forecast favours large collective units and it is closer to social engineering than it is to utopia.

58The questions of the labour incentives and the equilibrium between the production and the demand satisfaction, which were raised in 1924’s article on non-capitalist economic systems, were solved in peasant utopia by the project of mixed economy with the socialism in the agriculture and the capitalism in the industrial production as well as the elements of democracy and pluralism in the governance. The problems of the new elite and the deprivation of the original high ideals were also discussed. In scientific utopia of 1928 Chayanov seemed to believe that the science and the technological progress might help to solve and mitigate these issues. “Chayanov the economist was to play a tragic role in the fate of Chayanov the writer” believed Kagarlitskii (1990, 634). Conversely, Chayanov feared the prospect of repressions for his attacks against Marxism and state collectivism, and for his obvious blueprint of an anti-Soviet revolution in The Journey. In a letter of 1922 he urged Aleksandr Yashchenko to maintain the pseudonym of Alexei Kremnev, because disclosure of his identity “…has already cost me very dearly. I don’t wish to pour oil on the fire” (Bourgholtzer, 1999, 65). The destinies of Chayanov the economist and the writer “utopographer” were interdependent, even indivisible. Under questioning by Agranov, Chayanov himself tended to classify the Journey, which was a work of fiction, as one of his economic works (ibid, 27).

59It would be incorrect to explore Chayanov’s utopian visions outside of their historical context. Our goal was somewhat different : to demonstrate the historical importance of these ideas, to allow a more holistic understanding of the theory of non-capitalist forms of management and agrarian studies. In such non-Euclidean economics, that draws closer Chayanov and Polanyi, the crucial element is not even the universal principles, but subtle aspects of the combination of the traditional and the rational, the human and the efficient, the goals and methods that could be used to bring to life the visions of the time.

The author is grateful to Amanar Akhabbar, Francois Allisson, Artiom Magun, Aleksander Pogrebnyak, Federico d’Onofrio for stimulating discussions and suggestions. I would like to acknowledge the opportunity to present and discuss the earlier draft of the paper at the Lausanne workshop on Russian Political Economy & Statistics (2009) and the ESHET conference in Amsterdam (2010). I also acknowledge the useful comments of three anonymous referees. The usual caveats apply.

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1 In contrast to this positivistic view, Joseph A. Schumpeter underscores in the History of Economic Analysis, amongst various other utopias, the analytical importance of Thomas More’s Utopias (1516), where we find a criticism of the economic theories of those years, a definition of oligopoly, and a general understanding of the production and consumption of goods.

2 New Populism (or ‘neonarodnichestvo’) is the ideological trend in Soviet Russia of the 1920s that, like populism, aimed to represent ordinary people, mostly the peasantry, and claimed, on the basis of empirical studies, that Marx’s ideas are not applicable, and that the peasant economy has its own logic. The label also became a pejorative term used by its detractors. The statement that somebody followed New Populism could simply mean that he or she was an enemy of Marxism and Bolshevism. See Bourgholtzer (1999, 3 and 15-16).

3 Vladimir Kosinsky, Nikolai Makarov and Alexander Chelintsev could be attributed to this school.

4 In Kerblay (1966, lxiv) “The Possibilities of Agriculture.”

5 Yanni Kotsonis (1999) tends to overstate the gap between the enlightened modernizers (“Chayanov’s generation”) and the backward peasants. For a reasonable criticism of such an approach, see Ilya Gerasimov (2004).

6 This idea, of comparing Chayanov the theoretician and the utopian, was echoed in the article by Nadejda Figurovskaya and Veniamin Simonov (1988).

7 Another version of this question: “Why should I work harder than my neighbor when he and I get paid the same?”(Chayanov, [1926] 1991, 217)

8 Preserving the family in the society of the future was often a matter of concern in Russian literary utopias. For instance, Nikolai Fiodorov dedicated his utopia “The evening of 2217” (1906) to the family.

9 Desiatina - a Russian unit of land from the end of the 15th century, the desiatina was originally equivalent to 1.092 hectares. From the 18th through the early 20th century (until 1927) a “household” or “oblique” desiatina was mostly used (equivalent to 3,200 square sazhens or 1.45 hectares).

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Danila Raskov, « Socialist Agrarian Utopia in the 1920s: Chayanov »Œconomia, 4-2 | 2014, 123-146.

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Danila Raskov, « Socialist Agrarian Utopia in the 1920s: Chayanov »Œconomia [En ligne], 4-2 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2014, consulté le 19 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Danila Raskov

St. Petersburg State University, Russia,

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