Thursday, September 20, 2018

Liberal utopia or cursed regime?

A review of "Liberal Reform in an Illiberal Regime" by Stephen F Williams. 

This is a somewhat bland book on Stolypin's reforms in Russia. Pyotr Stolypin (Prime Minister of Czarist Russia 1906-1911) is best known for a series of attempted agrarian reforms, which some enthusiasts believe could have stopped the Russian revolution, if they had been successfully implemented. In the end, they weren't, being stalled by World War I. Personally, I suspect Stolypin's reforms were too little, too late. The author argues that most peasants probably supported the reforms and that agricultural productivity rose, partially as a result of them.

The main point of the book, however, is to ask whether “liberal” reforms are really possible under an illiberal regime. The author clearly wants this to be true. By giving the peasantry private property in land, the foundation for a future liberal democracy can be created. The newly minted farmers could then form apolitical associations, thereby creating a civil society, and gain democratic experience from this. In a later stage, the political system can then be democratized.

However, I think it's obvious that this neat scenario was well nigh impossible in Imperial Russia, and I somehow suspect the author knows this, too. Neither the landed gentry nor the revolutionary forces had any interest in an outcome like this. Above all, neither had the peasants themselves. I don't think the book proves that the peasants really supported Stolypin's reforms. Rather, I get the opposite impression: when given the chance to do so, the peasants simply reverted to the old “mir” (the peasant commune), having it confiscate all the land privatized during the reforms. They then proceeded to attack the lands of the gentry and the Czar…Nor is it clear if liberal reforms are ever possible in illiberal regimes. China has carried out many "liberal" (market) reforms, yet remains as politically authoritarian as ever. Indeed, economic reforms (if carried out in the proper manner) might *strengthen* the authoritarian regime - surely, Stolypin's project all along. The only road to democracy seems to be a good ol' democratic revolution!

Perhaps Stolypin's attempted reforms would have worked…if carried out 40 years earlier, or thereabouts. But of course, then there was no pressure from below motivating Czarism to change. I feel that Russian history moved towards its tragic Bolshevik climax in an almost fated manner. Pity the nation.

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