This article is part two of a series on the Russian Revolution by Chris Kinder. Part one is published as “Russia 1917: How the Revolution We Need Today Prevailed Then.”
“The subsoil of the revolution was the agrarian problem” — Trotsky
The Russian Revolution was above all a workers’ revolution. It put the working class in power for the first time in history, and promised a world revolution to come which would abolish war, national oppression and exploitation forever. It inspired workers’ rebellions around the world, and came close to succeeding in its ultimate goal. But workers were not the only ones to rebel in Russia in 1917. Without peasant support, indeed without the peasant uprising to throw off their own chains of oppression, the Russian Revolution never could have survived.
Unlike most of Western Europe, Russia was a backward, primarily agrarian society, in which capitalism had a late start, and still, at the opening of the Twentieth Century, held no political rights under the Tsarist autocracy. The overwhelming majority of its populace were peasants. As in most peasant societies, there was a long history of rebellions, all of which were defeated, but which were memorialized in legend and song for centuries. When in February of 1917—in the midst of the devastation of World War I —urban workers and soldiers rose up and toppled the fragile Tsarist autocracy in a matter of days, peasants immediately took notice. Could their grievances, so long ignored, be addressed in this new situation?
Peasant rebellions dated back as far as the Russian defeat of the Mongols, and the establishment of the Tsar as the “ruler of all Rus” in 1503. People of Mongol origin, Tatars, Kirghiz, Kalmuks, etc., were deprived of all rights and could be forced into serfdom by the Russian nobility, and even into outright slavery (slave markets were legal until 1828). Serfdom in Russia was slave-like feudalism—peasants were not allowed to leave the land they were born on. This soon produced uprisings, including major revolts in the 17th and 18th centuries. The leader of the first of these, Stepan Razin, was memorialized in a statue dedicated by Lenin in 1918; and the second, led by Yemelyan Pugachev, amassed a great army and took several cities before its eventual defeat, and Pugachev’s public beheading.
These rebellions were remembered by the peasants, but also by the landed gentry and the autocracy. When Russia suffered a humiliating defeat in the Crimean War in the 1850s, at the hands of the decrepit Ottoman Empire and its British and French allies, Russian rulers began to think about modernization. The abolition of serfdom in 1861 under Alexander II was the immediate result. This decree took a step away from feudalism, and at first, peasants were thrilled. The communal land on which peasants toiled had belonged to the landlord, but now it was “allocated” to the peasant commune (the village mir). But the devil was in the details, and the problems were many.
Fearful of revolution—such as those of 1848 in Western Europe—the gentry at first had wanted serfs to be freed, but without any land. The also fearful Tsar however, did not want to create a proletariat of landless workers. A compromise ensued, but it did not provide enough land for a growing population of peasants to survive on and still maintain their traditional three-field system. Furthermore, the landlords retained the best lands for themselves, and large sections of what had been commons, including forests, roads and rivers, were now accessible only for a fee. The forests were important to the peasants for building material and for fires in winter. Finally, the peasants were also required to make redemption payments for the land they did receive for 49 years, with interest! The peasants were still tied to the communal land, could not sell their portion of it, and often had to take jobs working on landlords’ farms, to the neglect of their own plots. In short, life remained grim for the peasants.
Underlying the land situation in 1861 was the insinuation of capitalism onto the scene. Just as in the latter days of feudalism in Western Europe, the landed gentry in Russia was accumulating debt owed to urban financiers. The redemption payments demanded of the peasants were to be the source of financing of bonds issued to the landlords by the state, so that the loss of ownership of the land could be turned into capital. But the redemption payments were essentially uncollectible from the poor peasants, who lacked sufficient land to be able to survive, let alone sell their produce.
The 1861 reforms had the effect of stimulating a capitalist market, however. The amount of grain for sale on the open market increased, as did non-gentry ownership of farms. The rural proletariat of landless laborers, composed of peasants who couldn’t make it as farmers, also increased. Here we have the background to uneven and combined development: an ancient but still dominant feudal aristocracy was becoming more intertwined with a nascent capitalism.
As the Twentieth Century dawned however, the Russian autocracy failed another big test on the international stage. In the Russo-Japanese War of 1904, the Tsar’s naval fleet was demolished by the Japanese Empire, which the Tsar had seriously underestimated. This debacle quickly sparked the Revolution of 1905. Workers rose up, went on strike, established workers soviets, and appointed a revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, to lead the St. Petersburg Soviet. Peasants rose up as well; not all, but enough to make the Tsar pick very carefully for a loyal regiment to shoot down protestors outside the Winter Palace in the Bloody Sunday massacre, killing at least 1,000. The 1905 uprising was put down, but the autocracy knew it had to do something to prevent further risings, and accelerate its modernization without undermining its still feudalistic noble ruling class. A fake parliament called the Duma was created, and the “solution” on the land was, essentially, more capitalism.
Based on earlier assessments of what was needed, Pyotr Stolypin, Chairman of the Tsar’s Council of Ministers, laid out a plan in 1906 which was based on “banking on the strong ones” (i.e., the rich, market-oriented peasants) The traditional communal land system was to be undermined by empowering peasants with the right to privatize the land by “cutting out” and selling their section of the commune. The reform also enabled the formation of peasant cooperatives, which became dominated by kulaks and middle peasants, who could trade on the market. This was “an explosive capitalist shell” aimed at the commune. The purpose was to promote capitalist farmers who would be a support for the regime. To facilitate this, the redemption payments of 1861, destined to expire anyway in 1910, were abolished.
Again, the penetration of capitalism on the land produced a stronger market, including international grain sales, as a minority of peasants were able to break away from the communes. Meanwhile, peasants who sold out their land because it was insufficient for them to live on added themselves to the ranks of landless farm laborers. Most peasants were enraged, and opposition to the land sales grew. In a year or two there were incidents of peasants seizing land that had been “cut out” from the commune, as well as attacks on big landlords, including the burning of mansions. The peasants, having gone through all the Tsar’s reforms, were still land hungry and rebellious.
The numbers illustrate the situation. In 1905, about one half of all arable land was private (including church and state-owned land), and about half of that was owned by 30,000 great landed gentry. The other half of all arable land—and often the worst land—was in the hands of some 10 million peasant families, mostly in the communes, or small ownership plots.
Enter the next, and as it turned out final, disaster for the fragile regime of Tsardom: World War I. War recruitment carried away 10 million workers and peasants, and stripped away 2 million horses, as well as food stuffs for the army and other resources, while defeats in the trenches mounted. Peasants who could no longer sow the land increased in number, and in the second year of war even some middle peasants began to go under.
An initial surge of patriotism was a set-back for the revolutionary left (the Bolsheviks had been gaining strength in recent years), but that didn’t last long. Workers’ rebellion soon infected the cities, and peasant hostility exploded from month to month. The stress on the economy was shown by the steady decline in bread rations for workers in (newly renamed) Petrograd. This provoked women workers to take to the streets in protest on International Working Women’s Day in 1917; and they were soon followed by the rest of the workers and the soldiers who were garrisoned in and around Petrograd. Tsar Nicholas II, who had foolishly thought he could save his futile war by himself going to the front, abandoned his throne within days. The February Revolution was on.
The workers immediately formed soviets again as in 1905, and peasants began to take action against the landlords, slowly at first, but soon ramping up. The February Revolution had dramatically increased the already high rate of desertions of peasant soldiers from the trenches. Returning to their home villages, these men were armed, impatient and ready to promote radical action. They took a leading role in events that were soon to envelope the countryside. The first weeks in February saw villages remain inert, but by March, the spectre of a peasant war hung over the landlords. This was a mixture of paranoia and reality: in some provinces, peasant committees were arresting landlords, banishing them, seizing the land, or “readjusting” their rents arbitrarily. As some of the frightened nobles began selling properties, often to foreign investors, kulaks began buying them up as well. Poor peasants’ resentment of landlords began to extend to rich peasants as well, and objection to land sales mounted.
The Revolution thus far had unleashed a torrent of organizing activities among the masses, and peasants were no exception. In May, a month-long All-Russian Congress of Peasant Deputies was held in Petrograd. This conclave, though composed primarily of representatives of the upper layers of the peasantry, provided an opportunity to assess the peasant state of mind. Delegates came from the zemstvos, or elected local assemblies, established by Tsar Alexander II in 1864, which were dominated by village shop keepers, as well as the co-ops of the more well-off peasants; and a few from the village mir. The representatives were overwhelmingly supporters of the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SRs), the descendants of the Narodniks, who were intellectuals proclaiming to go “to the people” as the path to end Tsarist rule. While they declared “land to the tiller,” their plan now was to pressure the bourgeoisie to implement land reform, through the projected Constituent Assembly, and they were resolutely opposed to workers’ demands for peace or the 8-hour day, or peasants acting on their own to solve the land question.
The Bolshevik delegation to this assembly was small, but Lenin addressed the congress on May 20th, and he proclaimed a program of land nationalization through organized direct action by the peasants regardless of legality. According to eyewitness Nicolai Sukhanov, “It would seem that Lenin had landed not merely in a camp of bitter enemies, but you might say in the very jaws of the crocodile.” But Sukhanov went on to report that, “The little muzhiks listened attentively and probably not without sympathy. But they dared not show it…”
In fact, Lenin (not for the first time) had put his finger on the central problem facing the revolution: the fact that the bourgeoisie, which was tied in with the landed aristocracy, was incapable of making a democratic revolution. The Bolshevik position, in distinction from the Mensheviks, had always been that the working class alone was capable of making the democratic revolution. The Bolsheviks’ formula for this was the “dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.” With the influence of Lenin’s thinking, and Trotsky’s promotion of the Marxist understanding of the revolution in permanence, this formula was revised to assert the need for a dictatorship of the proletariat in alliance with the peasantry. And that alliance, while it would expect the workers to take the lead in making their own revolution, and establishing a workers’ state, would not depend on the workers substituting themselves for peasant action. This was to be an alliance, not an overlordship.
The revolution would necessitate that the workers put forward their own demands, not limiting themselves to the democratic simplicities of the capitalists. After all, the masses had rebelled in February against the imperialist war, yet it went on; and against the approaching famine (largely due to the war), yet that went on; workers demanded the 8-hour day, but that was ignored; and the peasants were rebelling against the icy grip of the aristocracy over the land, yet the Provisional Government let that go on. Of all the supposedly “revolutionary” parties—Mensheviks, SRs, etc.—the Bolsheviks alone said that the masses should act for themselves in putting forward their own demands.
And that is the key to understanding the Russian Revolution: it was not a “coup” it was a coming together of what the masses wanted and needed, and a leadership prepared to facilitate their success. That formula included the peasants, and explains the Bolshevik’s Land Decree, and its relation to the theory of permanent revolution.
For most of 1917 however, the peasants were represented by the SRs, not the Bolsheviks. At the peasants’ congress in May, at which Lenin spoke, the SRs promoted and passed an extremely radical resolution, calling for: “Conversion of all land into national property for equal working use, without any indemnity.” But they didn’t mean that the peasants should act on their own! As Trotsky explains, “To be sure, the kulak understood equality only in the sense of his equality with the landlord, not at all in the sense of his equality with the hired hands. However, this little misunderstanding between the fictitious socialism of the Narodniks and the agrarian democratism of the muzhiks would come out in the open only in the future.”
That “future” came quickly. As the congress was winding down, reports came in of peasants taking the Congress’ resolutions seriously in the localities, and appropriating the land and equipment of the landlords. The SRs, at their own conference in early June, immediately sounded a retreat! They condemned all land seizures done arbitrarily by the peasants, and insisted that they wait for the Constituent Assembly. Their line was based on the fact that they were in alliance with the Provisional Government, of which they would soon be a part (their representative Alexander Kerensky became Minister of War, and then Minister Chairman).
And so it went for months. The peasants clung to the SRs at the local level because of their avowed aims, but the SR tops were all about compromising with the bourgeoisie, which was financially interlinked with the landed gentry. The landlords complained of the mounting confiscations of their land, and the Kadet (bourgeois liberal) bankers were loaned out against the real estate for billions of roubles. So the SR tops supported the bourgeois government’s feeble attempts to defend the gentry’s land. They planned to dicker with the landlords over reconciling their utopian slogans with bourgeois interests at the Constituent Assembly; but the peasants were not waiting around for this pie in the sky.
The action in the countryside soon became a stampede, with kulaks in the lead, with poor peasants drawn in on the general assault on the big landlords. The rich peasants had horses and wagons with which to sack the estates and carry off the goods, while the less well-off followed their lead in a wholesale demand for land. This was certainly not what the SR compromisers wanted, but it wasn’t exactly what the Bolsheviks wanted either. Lenin had called for organized confiscations, with peasant organizations taking over the big estates to work as collectives; and he emphasized the need for the landless workers and poor peasants to form soviets to present their own needs for socialization of the land. With some exceptions, neither of these calls were being heeded.
Yet the Bolsheviks, by October, though still a minority in local peasant organizations, had been the only party to call for peasant direct action, and peasants were listening. Trotsky reported that, in the escalating rush to attack the gentry’s estates, the SR leadership was increasingly pushed aside. This was documented by one Bolshevik in the Volga region: “The muzhiks called [their SR leaders] ‘old men,’ treating them with external deference, but voting in their own way.” Trotsky continues, “It is impossible to weigh the influence of the revolutionary workers upon the peasantry. It was continuous, molecular, [and] penetrating everywhere…”
This was the situation at the time of the Bolshevik conquest of power on October 25th: the peasant masses, in opposition to their own SR leadership, and under the influence of revolutionary workers and Bolsheviks, were seizing the land. While carrying out the SR program of land to the tiller, rather than the Bolshevik plan for organized takeovers to establish collectivization, the peasants were staking their claim as a petty bourgeois class: they wanted the land. The brilliance of Lenin’s leadership now lay in accepting this, for the present, as the will of the masses.
The working class took power in alliance with the peasantry, who were the vast majority in the country, and Lenin knew that simply declaring the Bolshevik program as law would not change the reality of what the peasants were doing. The workers were in power, but no revolution can impose socialism by decree; it must be built brick by brick. The Land Decree, the second (after the peace decree) to be passed by the 2nd Congress of Soviets, was based on the resolutions of peasant organizations, passed under the leadership of the SRs. But while the SRs saw this as a bargaining chip to present to the Constituent Assembly, the Bolsheviks saw it as the will of the peasants, taken by direct action, and endorsed it as such.
But how does this square with the theory of Permanent Revolution, which affirms that the working class in a relatively backward country such as semi-feudal Russia, must not only make the democratic revolution that the bourgeoisie could not make, but must also put forward its own demands for socialism and workers’ rule? The workers’ own demands, for bread, peace and land, had been out there on the street from the February beginning. But complaints were heard, both within the Bolshevik Party and from without, about how the Bolsheviks failed to implement the socialist revolution on the land.
Foremost among these critics was that of the German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. Writing from prison in 1918, Luxemburg asserted that, “the direct seizure of the land by the peasants has in general nothing at all in common with socialist economy.” And, she goes on, “In the first place, only the nationalization of the large landed estates…can serve as the point of departure for the socialist mode of production on the land.” In the second place, she asserts that, “one of the prerequisites of this transformation [is] that the separation between rural economy and industry…should be ended in such a way as to bring about a mutual interpenetration and fusion of both.”
All of this is right on the mark. Luxemburg then continues, “That the soviet government in Russia has not carried through these mighty reforms—who can reproach them for that!” She insists that the Soviet government, “in the brief period of their rule, in the center of the gripping whirlpool of domestic and foreign struggles,” could not have been expected to have accomplished these reforms, which she calls, “the most difficult task of the socialist transformation of society!” Again, well and good.
But then we come to the crux of the matter: Luxemburg says that, “A socialist government which has come to power must…take measures which lead in the direction of that fundamental prerequisite for a later socialist reform of agriculture.…” This, she says, the Bolsheviks did not do by calling for “immediate seizure and distribution of the land by the peasants,” or, she says, Lenin’s slogan of “go and take the land for yourselves,” which “simply led to the sudden, chaotic conversion of large landownership into peasant landownership.” (emphases in original)
What Luxemburg missed here was probably not her fault. News of the Russian Revolution was highly restricted in Germany in 1918 under a government of Social Democrats who were soon to be her murderers; and especially if one was in prison, as she was. But the truth she missed is that Lenin tirelessly made clear two things: First, the call for the peasants to seize the land themselves was directed explicitly against the program of the SRs, which called for land nationalization, but instructed the peasants to wait for “negotiations” with the landlords, or for the bourgeois Constituent Assembly to decide. Secondly, Lenin consistently called for land seizures to be organized. As he said at the aforementioned Peasant Congress in May 1917, “Let him [the peasant] know that the land he is taking is not his land, nor is it the landowners, but the common property of the people…” and, “Until [the power of the working people is established], the local [peasant] authorities…should take over the landed estates and should do so in an organized manner according to the will of the majority.”
In order to facilitate these aims, Lenin tried to promote the organization of landless and poor peasants, both before and after October, with, unfortunately, little result at first. Lenin also consistently argued for the preservation of gentry property for peoples’ use, rather than its destruction, which is what many peasants were doing. (In this, peasants were remembering their long experience with failed rebellions. They were saying, you must destroy everything, lest they come back.)
But Lenin’s Land Decree was very clear in laying down what Luxemburg advocated, ie, “measures that lead in the direction [of] a later socialist reform of agriculture.” According to the Decree, “All land…shall become part of the national land fund. Its distribution among the peasants shall be in [the] charge of the local and self-government bodies, from democratically organized village and city communes, in which there are no distinctions of social rank, to central regional government bodies.”
Nevertheless, it’s true that the peasants’ appropriation of the land for themselves led to trouble for the workers state, in that peasants began to withhold grain to the cities, sparking threat of famine, as Rosa Luxemburg noted. But Luxemburg’s plea for a “fusion” of agriculture and industry, much to the chagrin of the Bolsheviks, was impossible just then. Starting with the early days of the Revolution, factories began to lock out workers in defiance of the Bolsheviks, and the trickle of workers who went back to the peasant villages where they were from increased.
Then, with the start of the Civil War, workers and peasants were called upon to form the Red Army, which they did with little hesitation, further interrupting what little production capacity was left. This became a key to the famine which gripped urban Russia in 1918-19: the workers—and their new state—had nothing to offer the peasants in the way of manufactured tools and goods in exchange for foodstuffs. Forced requisitioning of grain became essential. But without this Land Decree, solidifying the removal of the landlords, the Bolsheviks would have lost the civil war.
This dismal situation ironically improved somewhat with the resignation of the Left-SRs from the Soviet government after the ratification of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, which ended Russia’s participation in World War I. I say “ironically,” because under the treaty, the Bolsheviks had to cede the Baltic states to Germany, and they had to recognize the independence of the Ukraine, which quickly came under German influence: not good. This is not to say that signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was not necessary: it was of utmost importance to end the imperialist war that had devastated Russia and Europe. But the Ukraine was the most highly developed, most capitalistic, and most productive of agricultural areas of the former Russian Empire.
However, with the SRs out of the government, their influence over the peasants declined. The SRs had tended to favor individual action by the richer stratum, while the Bolsheviks, whose influence now increased, continued to support poor and landless peasants. The “improvement” was that with this rising influence, and with the onset of the civil war in mid-1918, Lenin finally succeeded in mobilizing poor and landless peasants, through Poor Peasants Committees and Communes. This signaled that the Bolsheviks had succeeded in splitting the peasantry along class lines, and this was a good thing for a transition to socialism.
Lenin explained this in a speech to a peasant congress of the Poor Peasants Committees and Communes, in December of 1918: “At first there was the general drive of the peasants against the landowners… This was followed by a struggle among the peasants themselves, among whom new capitalists arose in the shape of the kulaks, the exploiters and profiteers who used their surplus grain to enrich themselves at the expense of the starving non-agricultural parts of Russia.” Lenin emphasized that now, “ …our common task and our common aim is the transition to socialist farming, to collective land tenure and collective farming.” This was to be done gradually, using persuasion and “transitional methods,” and involving middle peasants as well as poor.
The Kulaks and poor peasants had been united in overthrowing the landlords, but now rich peasants were selling their grain on the black market at high prices, defying the workers’ state’s monopoly, and even threatening its survival. The organization of poor peasants promoted the state monopoly on the sale of foodstuffs, aided in grain seizures from the rich peasants, and supported the mobilization of peasants in support of the workers state in the face of imperialist and white army reactionaries mobilizing to destroy it.
The drive to collectivize would not be completed in Lenin’s lifetime, nor would it prevent the “one step back” that the Bolsheviks had to take at the end of the civil war in 1921, in the form of the New Economic Policy, or NEP, which became necessary to jump start Russia’s devastated economy. However, the Bolshevik’s commitment to the permanent revolution is fully confirmed by their handling of the peasant question. Just barely out of feudalism, the peasant majority in Russia, oppressed by the landlords and hungry for land, had to go through the stage of making the bourgeois revolution on the land, which they could only do with the alliance, and leadership, of the urban proletariat.
But this “stage” of the peasant revolution must not be confused with the stagism of the Mensheviks or the Stalinist epigones who later led the degeneration of the Russian Revolution. In the Menshevik/SR/Stalinist world view, the bourgeois revolution had to come first, while the working class waited for the bourgeoisie to complete a revolution (which it was incapable of completing). But the Bolsheviks of Lenin and Trotsky were not so inclined. They showed that, indeed, the working class had to press forward with its own demands in order not only to complete the bourgeois revolution (including that of the peasants), but to move forward toward socialism for workers, and in timely fashion, for the peasants as well.
Throughout history, peasant revolts had never been capable of leading to a peasant revolutionary state. The peasants, being class divided among themselves, could only prompt a new dynasty (as in China), or a new urban petty-bourgeois layer into power. They had never been so capable, that is, until the Russian Revolution, when, together with the working class, they made history.
1 The three field system, in which two fields were planted and one left fallow, rotating each year, was a standard throughout feudal Europe. This helped prevent soil depletion from over-working, and from the planting of single crops endlessly on the same fields. Modern agriculture attempts to circumvent this with artificial fertilizers, but that is another story.
2 Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Sphere Books Ltd, London, 1967, vol. I p. 59.
3 Trotsky, vol. I, p. 364-65.
4 N. N. Sukhanov, “The Russian Revolution 1917,” Harper, 1962, vol. 2, p. 371. Sukhanov was a Menshevik with a wide range of contradictory opinions, but he was a great eyewitness reporter. A “muzhik” is a Russian peasant.
5 Trotsky, vol. I, p. 371.
6 Trotsky, vol. III, p. 24.
7 Rosa Luxemburg, “The Russian Revolution,” in Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, Pathfinder Press, 1970. This was written in mid-1918 and not published until years later.
8 Lenin, “Speech On the Agrarian Question,” to First All Russia Congress of Peasants’ Deputies, May 22 (June 4th) 1917, Collected Works (CW), vol. 24. pp. 486-505.
9 Lenin’s Decree on the Land, in Mervyn Matthews, ed., Soviet Government: A Selection of Official Documents on Internal Policies, New York, 1974, p. 319.
10 Lenin, “Speech To The First All-Russian Congress of Land Departments, Poor Peasants’ Committees and Communes.” December 11, 1918, in CW, vol. 28, pp. 338-48. Transitional methods included state support and incentives for collective farms.