Desktop version

Home arrow History

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Imperial modernizations

Like elsewhere in the nineteenth and twentieth century, parliamentarism and constitutionalism were frequently discussed in Eurasia in the context of political modernization. The Japanese and the Ottoman Empires (see Ellinor Morack's Chapter 7 in this volume) introduced constitutions and parliaments in the second half of the nineteenth century. Although in the latter constitutionalism was suspended, the success of political modernization of Japan, which supposedly led to its military prowess and turned it into a colonial power, affected the Qing and Russian Empires directly - in the Sino-Japanese (1894-1895) and the Russo-Japanese (1904-1905) Wars - and contributed to the discussions of political reforms in the Qing Empire and a revolution in the Russian Empire.

Until the end of the nineteenth century, the debates on parliamentarism in the Qing Empire stayed within intellectual circles. Although memorials referring to the establishment were presented to the throne, the government did not take up the topic, and it was not even included in the abortive Hundred Days’ Reform

Duma, yuan, and beyond 23 promulgated in the summer of 1898. The negative evaluation is shown by the diary of Li Jiaju ^^1$), an official who was accompanying the Qing minister to Tokyo in order to study the Japanese education system, and who later would become one of the main figures of the constitutional reforms. In 1899, however, the balance of the Meiji reforms contained in his diaiy still emphasized the convening of a parliament as one of its main drawbacks, as opposed to the modernization of the military and the revitalization of the education system.61

In Russia, the so-called zemstvo constitutionalists and other liberal groups of nobility and intellectuals reinvigorated the discussions of introducing a parliament in the 1890s. After the demise of the conservative Alexander III, his son, Nicholas II, was asked to convene a parliament in 1895. Nicholas II, however, rejected the idea, pledging to defend autocracy. As noted by an oppositional politician several years later, that very same year the fatal decision of expanding to East Asia was made as if to counterbalance the dreams of liberalizing the empire.62

Ten years later, however, in the wake of the disastrous war with Japan and the Revolution of 1905-1907, Nicholas II conceded. Although Nicholas II was inclined to support an irregular consultative zemskii sobor, the governmental commission, which was created on the initiative of Minister of Internal Affairs Aleksandr Grigor’evich Bulygin in 1905, suggested a permanent assembly. Sergei Efimovich Kryzhanovskii of the Ministry of Internal Affairs was the main advocate of introducing the Duma.63 Its name, the State Duma, was taken up from Speranskii’s project, which was referenced directly during the official discussions of the new institution at the closed Peterhof Conference chaired by the Tsar. Some participants of the conference once again deemed the gathering of local information and the communication between the Tsar and his subjects the main objective of the Duma. The historian Kliuchevskii, one of the few liberal voices at the Peterhof Conference, located the Duma in the history of popular representation in Russia, which he traced to the zemskii sobors, and stressed the need to base legislation on the will of the majority of the people, hence attempting to define the Duma as a parliament. Although most of the ruling elite did not see the Duma as a parliament and rejected the very idea of limiting autocracy, Nicholas H’s attempt to “de-modernize” the proposed institution by calling it a Gosudareva (“of the autocrat”) rather than Gosudarstvennaia (“of the state”) duma was shut down at the Peterhof Conference.64

Although initially it was designed as a consultative body, the establishment of the legislative State Duma (on October 17, 1905, in the so-called October Manifesto) and the adoption of the new Fundamental State Laws of the Russian Empire (on April 23,1906) seemed to make Russia a constitutional state. In 1907, Vladimir Matveevich Gessen and Boris Emmanuilovich Nol’de, two prominent liberal legal scholars, listed Russia, together with Persia and Montenegro, as a new constitutional state in their comprehensive collection of contemporary constitutions. Articulating a popular progressive view, they claimed that the failures of the Russo-Japanese War unmasked the inefficiency of bureaucratic autocracy, spreading the critical attitudes to the ancien régime beyond intellectual circles and transforming them into a broad liberation movement across the whole country.65

Indeed, before and especially during the Revolution of 1905-1907, the inefficiency of the Russian state played a key role in the broader debates on democracy, which contrasted the public and the bureaucracy. The liberal program included not only parliamentarization but also decentralization of the empire, with the introduction of zemstvo and municipal self-government on the basis of universal suffrage. As argued by Gessen, since bureaucracy lacked information on particular affairs, it could not govern them effectively and needed to be substituted by local and professional self-organization.66 The same logic applied to the parliament. Articulating a widespread opinion, the Tomsk liberal newspaper Sibirskaia :hi:n ’ celebrated the October Manifesto as the liberation of the people from “the tutelage of bureaucracy.” According to the newspaper, the Russian Empire had become a constitutional state and “joined the family of modern civilized states as an equal,” and in such a state the population had supreme authority. At the same time, Sibirskaia :hi:n ’ voiced a popular liberal argument in favor of gradual political change.67

Few contemporary observers, however, viewed the Duma (1906-1917) as a parliament equal to its Western counterparts. It occupied a subordinate position to the State Council, which was reformed from a bureaucratic advisory council into a partly appointed upper chamber (for a similar conservative take on parliamentarism, see Bruce Grover’s Chapter 3 in this volume), and did not control the cabinet, which contributed to the term “sham constitutionalism” being applied to the new Russian regime.68 The non-uuiversal, indirect, and unequal elections were further limited with the dissolution of the Second Duma on June 3, 1907. Nol'de nevertheless stressed that the Russian Empire could be called a constitutional state and deemed the State Duma the first normally functioning parliament in Russia, implying the country's connection to Western constitutional modernity.69

Liberal intellectuals made gradualist arguments about the situation. Sergei Andreevich Kotliarevskii, a historian, legal scholar, and one of the founding members of the liberal Constitutional Democratic (KD) Party, favored “democratic parliamentarism,” but the notion of political evolution and Russia’s inferiority compared to the West helped him justify the existence of the "Prussian regime” of a non-answerable cabinet as a transitional stage. Despite his skepticism of the Duma's “parliamentarism,” he urged Russia’s progressives to set parliamentarism (rather than radical republicanism) as their ultimate goal.70 In practical terms this translated into the KD program of constitutional monarchy featuring a potent universally elected "popular representation.”71

Even after the Duma was made legislative, conseivative opponents of parliamentarism remained vocal. Vasilii Vasil’evich Rozanov, a conseivative philosopher, refused to admit that a “constitution” and a “parliament” were introduced in Russia, maintaining that the Duma was a product of Russian history, produced by the Russian soul, enthusiasm, patience, and work, and not a “foreign novelty.” Although Rozanov acknowledged that the Russian people also moved to liberation like elsewhere, this movement was parallel to those of the others. For Rozanov, however, it did not have the same direction. For him, the Duma did not mimic Western institutions and was not a place for representing difference.

Rozanov called for the unity of Russia’s political groups there, which would mitigate the splits in the Russian society.72

Although it did not become a potent parliament, the State Duma proved to be a key site of imperial nation-making, both in the sense of imagining the larger inclu-sionary political community of the empire and the smaller communities (based on ethnicity, religion, region, social estate, and class) in the composite space of the empire.73 As argued by Alexander Semyonov, the State Duma was a microcosm of empire not because it ostensibly represented the national or ethno-confessional distinctions but because the parliament itself was based on uneven or multidimensional heterogeneity. The elections, albeit restrictive and representative of just a fraction of the overall population, were based on several principles, which alternately referenced territorial, social estate, ethno-national, and confessional markers or combinations of them. This owed to the differentiating and individuating approach of the government to imperial space. In the Duma itself it resulted in the articulation of multiple and overlapping categories, with some having been politicized before and with others being operationalized only in the imperial parliament. There were multiple caucuses (with overlapping memberships) based on ethnicity (for instance, Poles), religion (Muslims), social estate (Cossacks), and region (Siberians) in addition to the party factions. There was also a caucus of Autonomists which united nationalist and regionalist advocates of decentralization.74 A popular print of the First Duma accentuated the diversity of the deputies by placing Muslim and peasant deputies at the foreground of the composition (see Figure 1.1).

Despite their criticism of the Duma, liberal and moderate socialist and nationalist thinkers generally supported parliamentarism. The KDs included parliamentarism, as the answerability of the cabinet to the parliament’s majority, into their program in 1905. The other two largest oppositional parties - the Party of Socialists Revolutionaries (SR) and the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (SD) - supported the slogan of democratic republic. The SRs also included the slogan of revolutionary dictatorship of proletariat, if it became necessary, into their draft program in 1905 but ultimately dropped it in favor of democratic republic ruled by the people through their elected representatives and referendum.75

Left and right radicals, by contrast, questioned the very necessity of a parliament. The former rejected parliaments as part of class exploitation and oppressive state machinery and called for direct rule of the toilers to represent an alternative democratic modernity. The prominent anarchist writer Petr Alekseevich Kropotkin rejected the idea of dividing the struggle into two steps - a political coup and economic reforms ostensibly to be implemented by a Russian parliament. For him, the struggle against autocracy and capital was to be simultaneous, and any parliament was a deal between the parties of the past and those of the future and hence would never introduce revolutionary measures. Arguing that Russia was unique and opposing parliamentary gradualism, Kropotkin maintained that the Russian people had a historic chance to take the power into their own hands and surpass the stages which the West went through.76

Zasedanie pervoi Gosudarstvennoi dumy [The session of the First State Duma]. Moscow

Figure 1.1 Zasedanie pervoi Gosudarstvennoi dumy [The session of the First State Duma]. Moscow: Lit. T-va I. D. Sytina, [1906]. The text at the top reads “State Duma. (Tauride Palace).’’ The text at the top right corner reads “Chairman of the State Duma S. A. Muromtsev.”

For the far right, the threat to the “greatness” of the state was intertwined with the supposed threats to the ethnic Russians. Rozanov’s aspiration for unity in the State Duma was shattered by the oppositional majorities of the first two Dumas, which triggered then dissolution. Anticipating the convocation of the Third Duma, based on the limited electoral law, Rozanov expected the new Duma to finally become one of the “state” and not one of the “society,” rejecting thereby the liberal notion of societal self-organization. Rozanov expressed hope that the Duma would be a “national Russian” representation and personally attacked the SD deputies from the Caucasus. What progressives and non-Russian nationalists saw as the non-Russians finally gaining a voice through the Duma, for Rozanov was a clear indication that the Russian state and the ethnic Russians (who in practice made up some 44.3 percent of the imperial population in terms of language but legally also included the 17.8 percent speaking Ukrainian and 4.7 percent speaking Belarusian, becoming thereby a majority)77 could become marginalized, as he claimed that the “greyhaired old Rus’,” embodied by the people of “serious positions and professions,” had to listen to the “nonsense” of the deputies from the Caucasus.78 Some right radicals even saw the roots of Russian parliamentarism in a Jewish conspiracy.79

Whereas the defeat against Japan in 1895 did not seem to boost government interest in parliamentarism in the Qing Empire, subsequent events did. The Boxer War of 1900-1901 and the Russo-Japanese War led the Qing government to agree to political reforms. The aforementioned Li Jiaju thoroughly changed his opinion on this matter, coming to act first as the Qing constitutional commissioner to Japan in 1908, and eventually as one of the Imperially appointed drafters of the final constitution in 1911. However, subscribing to a gradualist policy, the government maintained that a full bicameral parliament (yiyuan) could only be convened after a thorough reform of the state, as delegates were not expected to legislate from scratch, but instead to deliberate policy matters on the basis of an already existent body of laws.80 The gradualist approach was not only the one recommended by a large part of foreign observers, but it was also reinforced by the Qing government’s perception of Russia, where the speedy adoption of a constitution and the convening of the First Duma in 1906 did not do much to mitigate the crisis through which the country was going.81

Following this principle, the government promised in 1906 to study the adoption of constitutional government and foresaw the creation of a proto-parliamentary body, the Political Consultative Council (Zizhengyuan as a place to

“broadly collect public speech” (bocai qunyan W).82 In the following years, the government followed through, setting up the Zizhengyuan as well as deliberative assemblies at lower administrative levels, called “offices for consultation and deliberation” (ziyiju gSs'MJtu) at provincial level and “deliberative assemblies” (yishihui at lower levels. As the official documents issued by the government at the time made clear, the lower provincial assemblies should be a basis for the Political Consultative Council, serving as a talent pool for it (wei Zizhengyuan chucai zhi jie M W (s? Fla) and as gathering points of public opinion (caiqu

yulun zhi suo S$f).83 These local assemblies were not to be treated as national parliaments, but were confined to a consultative role.84 They were, however, parliamentary “forerunners” (xiansheng ÆS)85 which should be transformed into provincial legislative organs after the convening of the National Assembly.86

For the government, such parliamentary assemblies were thus mainly meant as consultative bodies that should bring the concerns of the people to the government. Equally, it was hoped that they would foster national cohesion by bringing those governing and those governed closer together. This was true even for vast parts of the empire which were deemed unfit to participate in the new system, that is, the large non-Han regions of Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet. The new parliamentary system presupposed “the existence of a pool of educated Han gentry outside the bureaucracy - a milieu conspicuously lacking” there.87 Hence, no provincial assemblies were established in Mongolia and Tibet, and the one for Xinjiang never assembled. Yet, by giving elites of these regions, particularly from Mongolia, special group representation by Imperial appointment to the Political Consultative Council, the Qing tried to parliamentarize their traditional method of creating loyalty by conferring aristocratic privileges.88

The government’s slow approach to parliamentarism met with increasing impatience on the part of a public which, to a large extent, although by far not exclusively, had come to see constitutionalism as a panacea for the Qing Empire’s ills, and called for a much faster pace of reforms. A large number of people signed petitions calling for the “speedy convening of a parliament” (su kai guo-hui isklirJHfi), including Li Jiaju himself. But even the mere “right to express proposals” (jianyan zhi quan s"¿JS)89 had a tremendous impact on late Qing politics. As the provincial assemblies were allowed to memorialize to the Political Consultative Council, they had a communication channel to the Emperor and were less dependent on the governor.90 When the provincial assemblies were convened in 1909 and the Political Consultative Council in 1910, the local elites represented in them made extensive use of their "right to speak.” Using the assemblies as platforms, they severely pressured the court, which became one of the immediate causes of its demise in 1911/1912.91

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics