Tony Cliff

Lenin 2

Chapter 11
The Peasantry in the Revolution

The Revolution Engulfs the Villages

The rebellious towns, together with the mutinous soldiers, brought about the awakening of the countryside. In the first few weeks after the February Revolution, the countryside remained almost completely quiet, but this could not continue for long. In many cases the landlords, frightened of the specter of revolution, did not undertake the spring sowing. All over Russia, anxious about the future, they hastened to sell their property – either to rich peasants or to foreigners. The mass of the peasantry saw this and became agitated. The first demand that spread extensively was for a stop to all land sales. Sukhanov tells how one of the peasant delegates, with tears in his eyes, pleaded with the ministers to promulgate a law prohibiting the land from being sold.

He was impatiently interrupted by the pale and agitated Kerensky. “Yes, yes, that will be done. The provisional government is already taking steps. Tell them there is nothing to worry about. The government and myself will do our duty.”

One of the deputation, however, obviously mistrusting the minister’s assurance, tried to put in the remark that the law had been promised long since but that nothing was happening. The others were obviously in sympathy. Kerensky was furious and began a thorough tongue-lashing, practically stamping his foot:

“I said it would be done, that means it will! And – there is no need to look at me so suspiciously!”

I give this verbatim – Kerensky was right, the little peasants were looking suspiciously at the famous people’s minister. [1]

They became more and more impatient. “Well, nothing has changed yet,” peasants from a village near Riazan wrote, “and the revolution is already six weeks old.” [2]

At the second session of the Central Land Committee at the beginning of July, the representative of Nizhni-Novgorod province reported that there was only one topic of conversation among the peasants. “We are tired of waiting, we have waited three hundred years, and now that we have conquered power, we do not want to wait any more.” [3]

The conservative paper Russkaia Volia of May 4 described the mood among delegates to the All-Russian Peasant Congress thus:

The delegates’ main grievance, voiced on behalf of the peasants, is that while all classes are already reaping the fruits of the revolution the peasants alone are still waiting for their share. The peasants alone are told to wait until the constituent assembly meets and settles the land question.

“We don’t agree,” they say. “We’re not going to wait, just as others have not waited. We want the land now, at once.” [4]

The peasants did not limit themselves to thinking and talking, but started to act. From the end of March, news came trickling in of peasant encroachment on landlords’ property.

The muzhiks started by appropriating vacant lands. Then they seized the haystacks, which they themselves had made. Then they seized equipment belonging to the landlord. Heading the movement were areas where semi-serf methods of exploitation had particularly deep roots and the poverty of the peasantry was greatest.

Statistics compiled by the provisional government Central Land Committee give a concrete picture of the agrarian movement in various guberniias of European Russia. They are divided into six groups according to the number of peasant uprisings. The first and lowest group, with ten or fewer incidents, includes the guberniias of Olonets, Vologda, laroslavl, Viatka and Ural oblast, Estland, Kovno, Grodno, and Kavkaz. The second group, with eleven to twenty-five uprisings, includes the guberniias of Moscow, Vladimir, Kostroma, Perm, Astrakhan, the Cossack Don oblast, and Tauride. The third group, with twenty-six to fifty uprisings, is made up of the guberniias of Lifland, Petrograd, Novgorod, Tver, Kaluga, Nizhni-Novgorod, Ufa, Kharkov, Ekaterinoslavl, Bessarabia, Podolia, Volynia, and Vilna. The fourth, with from fifty to seventy-five cases, embraces the guberniias of Vitebsk, Smolensk, Orlov, Poltava, Kiev, Kherson, Saratov, and Orenburg. The fifth, with seventy-six to one hundred cases, contains the guberniias of Minsk, Tula, Kursk, Voronezh, Tambov, Penza, and Simbirsk. Finally, the sixth and highest group, with 101 or more cases, includes the guberniias of Pskov, Mogilev, Riazan, Kazan, and Samara. [5]

The number of offenses committed by the peasantry increased sharply, as can be seen from the following table [6]:










Land seizures








Trees felled and lumber theft








Equipment theft
















The number of manor houses destroyed also rose abruptly [7]:


















In the months leading up to October, the peasants’ illegal actions became more and more violent. The number of raids on landed estates went up by 30 percent from August to September, and by a further 43 percent in October.

Of the 624 districts constituting old Russia, 482 witnessed violent attacks on landlords in August; in September, the proportion was even higher. Moreover, not only the number, but also the intensity of these disturbances was constantly increasing – October saw half as many acts of violence again as the whole period of February to September.

In late summer and autumn, manor after manor went up in flames. The right-wing paper Novoe Vremia had the following story to tell on October 3:

Not a day goes by that news does not appear in the press about the atrocious pogroms which take place in the village. In the spirit of anarchy, the propaganda-inspired masses are not satisfied to seize the lands of the private owners. They also remove the workers from properties, fell forests, and destroy crops.

The non-resistance of the provisional government, which limits itself in the struggle with anarchy to mere appeals, which naturally no one takes seriously, has resulted in veritable pogroms by the population in its effort to seize land. Estates of private owners are destroyed by arson and in other ways. Livestock and equipment are seized. Various agricultural enterprises are put out of use completely. The owners and their employees, in so far as they succeed in saving themselves from attacks or actual murder, flee to the cities, leaving their estates to the mercy of fate. [8]

Another paper, Vlast Naroda, wrote on the same day:

The waves of pogroms rise ever higher. They threaten to flood all of Russia, to sweep away all that still remains in the chaos of the breakdown of the Russian state, to turn the great Russian revolution into a disorderly, bloody scuffle ... Rural Russia is enveloped in a glow of fire from pomeshchiki [landlords’] estates. Model agricultural holdings are being destroyed. The productive forces of the country are dying ... Without waiting for the constituent assembly, the peasants seize land, violate the sovereign rights of all the people, destroy the national wealth. [9]

The Government Procrastinates

Shortly after coming to power, on March 19, the provisional government declared that agrarian reform was a cherished and urgent objective. At the same time it announced:

The land question cannot be resolved by means of any [arbitrary]seizures. Violence and robbery are the worst and most dangerous expedients in the realm of economic relations ... The land question must be resolved by means of law, passed by the representatives of the people.

Proper consideration and passage of a land law is impossible without serious preparatory work: the collection of materials, the registration of land reserves, [the determination of] the distribution of landed property, and the conditions and forms of land utilization, and so forth ...

On the basis of the above considerations, the provisional government has resolved:

1. To recognize the urgency of the preparation and elaboration of materials on the land question.

2. To entrust this [task]to the Ministry of Agriculture.

3. To form a Land Committee in the Ministry of Agriculture for the purpose indicated.

4. To direct the Minister of Agriculture to submit to the government at the earliest moment a plan for the establishment of such a committee together with an estimate of the funds necessary for its work. [10]

So, instead of action by the masses, there was to be a collection of information by government bureaucrats!

A month after this declaration, on April 21, the government issued an appeal concerning the land question:

The most important question for our country – the land question – can be properly and finally resolved only by the constituent assembly, elected by universal, equal, direct, and secret ... suffrage. But in order to make such a resolution possible it is necessary to gather information from all regions on the land needs of the population and to prepare a new law on land organization for the constituent assembly ... A great disaster threatens our native land should the local population take upon itself the reorganization of the land system without waiting for the decision of the constituent assembly. Such arbitrary actions carry the threat of general ruin. [11]

One historian writes:

If the peasants were going to wait for the orderly processes of the constituent assembly instead of taking matters into their own hands, they demanded at least some measures in the interim that would better their lot and ease the burden of war, the full weight of which had fallen upon their shoulders. They also wanted to be very sure that the land fund would not be drawn down in the meantime by legitimate or fictitious deals between estate owners and small or foreign buyers who would be in a better position to claim exemption from confiscatory legislation. [12]

The minister of agriculture, Victor Chernov, leader of the SRs, was anxious to do just this – to prohibit the sale of land before the convocation of the constituent assembly. But attempts to preserve the status quo in respect to landownership by withdrawing the commodity from the market proved very difficult. Here the minister had arrayed against him the entire business community, which held that a ban on land deals would depreciate land values, which in turn would impair the credit structure of banks and endanger the savings of small investors. Needless to say, the Cadets offered strenuous resistance to the proposed measure. [13] The prime minister, Prince Lvov, himself a landowner of Tula province, also opposed Chernov. Confronted by this degree of opposition, Chernov could not get his projected law through the cabinet.

He also wanted to put all land under the administration of land committees until the constituent assembly should declare its final fate. Given that there had been so much trouble over a measure that Chernov termed the most rudimentary of all needing legislation, it is not surprising that this more far-reaching plan was not even considered by the first coalition ministry.

When, at the end of August, Chernov was forced out of the government by the right, his successor as minister of agriculture, the SR S.L. Maslov, produced a watered-down draft law. Instead of placing all land without exception under the land committees, as the SR Congress of May 1917 had demanded, Maslov’s draft suggested bringing only the land rented to peasants, cultivated with their equipment or left idle, into the scope of the projected legislation. In general, that part of privately owned land that was farmed with the owner’s equipment was not to be affected. While state and appanage lands were to go into the fund subject to the land committees, allotment lands were not, and the exemption list was swelled by properties used for specialized farming (viniculture, horticulture, and so forth), and also, apparently, by ecclesiastical properties, unless these were considered as falling within the category of state properties. Maslov’s law was to leave rich peasants (kulaks) untouched; under the party program, their surplus land was to go into the common fund. [14]

Even the land the peasant was to get he would not get for nothing. “Rent,” said clause 33 of the bill, “shall be paid to the committees which shall hand over the remainder [after various payments to the Treasury, etc.]to the rightful owners.”

Maslov’s land bill came before the cabinet in mid-October. The fall of the government prevented it from becoming the law of the land.

SRs and Mensheviks to the Rescue

The agrarian policy of the provisional government received continual support from the SR and Menshevik leaders of the soviet. For instance, on March 26, an editorial in Izvestiia, the daily newspaper of the executive of the soviet, stated:

Not only the interests of the peasantry, but the interests also of the entire Russian democracy demand that the gentry’s estates be confiscated and transferred to the democratic state ... A month ago the demand “All land – to the people!” seemed [like]a distant dream.

But a few months will pass and this dream, too, will become a reality.

The people will receive all the land.

But this should be accomplished in such a way that the transference of land to the people will take place in a completely orderly manner, so that the interests of free Russia will not suffer. [15]

Similarly, the SR paper, Dyelo Naroda, stated in an editorial on March 16:

With the penetration into the village of the first news of the revolution, agrarian disorders occurred in some places. At the oblast congress of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, it was reported that in some villages peasants began to seize landowners’ lands, to attack agronomists who, complying with the orders of the old government, were requisitioning grain and hay, etc.

The regional conference of the SR Party, having discussed the situation that has arisen, sharply condemned such attempts and declared that “confiscation of cultivated ... privately owned lands may be conducted only by legislative means through the constituent assembly which will grant land and freedom to the people.” The same resolution was passed also by the conference of peasant representatives in the Moscow Council of Workers’ Deputies. That resolution proclaimed: “No pogroms or arbitrary seizures of land will be tolerated.”

Need we add that the decision of the party should be just this and no other?

The editorial ended with the following words:

Guard the sacredness and success of the revolution! Do not turn the great work into a reign of arbitrary rule and violence! Do not confuse the socialization of land with its arbitrary seizure for personal gain! Do not tolerate any pogroms!

Fight against them! Organize and be prepared for the elections to the constituent assembly which must give the people both land and freedom!!! [16]

Wait, wait ... that was all the government and compromisers had to say to the peasants.

The Peasants Refuse to Wait for the Constituent Assembly

Chernov writes:

What were they waiting for? They were told: for the constituent assembly. Unfortunately, this assembly was postponed with depressing regularity. No better means for sickening the peasant of the constituent assembly could have been invented.

And so the idea that there was no need to wait for the constituent assembly and that the land must be seized at once found ready soil. At the second session of the Chief Land Committee, a Smolensk representative reported the talk of the peasants in Sychevsky district: “They say of the constituent assembly: Well, Nicholas was overthrown without the constituent assembly; why can’t the gentry be driven from the face of the earth without it?” The Bolsheviks, who were on the job, nudged them: They can be. You have only to set up a workers’ and peasants’ dictatorship and settle all problems “in two shakes of a lamb’s tail,” with a mere flourish of the pen at the foot of revolutionary decrees. [17]

So Punitive Forces Are Used ...

The government resorted increasingly to the use of troops to suppress agrarian riots. On April 8, it was reported:

The query of the general staff reported by the Assistant Minister of the Interior D.M. Shchepkin with regard to whether it is necessary to give the commanders of the troops of the districts the right to send military detachments when demanded, for participating in the suppression of agrarian disorders. Resolved:

1. To let the Ministry of the Interior inform the guberniia commissars by circular that it is their responsibility together with that of the local public committees to suppress immediately with the use of all legal means any kind of attempt in the sphere of agrarian relations against the person or property of citizens if such attempts have taken place.

2. To let the Ministry of the Interior inform the general staff that necessary instructions with regard to the question raised by the staff have been forwarded to the guberniia commissars who will be responsible in case it is necessary to enter into direct contact with the military authorities concerned. [18]

Then on July 31, the commander in chief, General Kornilov, issued an order covering “the whole theater of war”:

I forbid.

... The hindrance of harvesting by agricultural machines.

... The seizure by violence, in an unlawful way, of livestock or material inventory.

... The unlawful removal from field work on estates owned by the state or by private individuals, or on other [land]holdings, of the prisoners of war or any permanent or migrant laborers [working]thereon; I order the return of the unlawfully removed prisoners of war.

... The forcing of permanent or migrant laborers to raise the labor prices agreed upon beforehand.

... The seizure by force of sown or harvested grain, fodder, grass, and hay.

... The hindrance of harvesting in any way.

... The hindrance of the cultivation and saving of winter crop fields. [19]

On September 8 Kerensky, as supreme commander, an office that he had assumed following the Kornilov affair [1*], reissued and confirmed this order. But, perhaps significantly, he did so without specific reference to its application only in the theater of war. [20]

During the months March-June, 17 cases of the use of armed force against peasants were counted; in July-August there were 39 cases; in September-October, 105 cases. [21]

On October 10, the minister of the interior, Nikitin, urged government commissars in provinces and towns to “rally the healthy elements of the population for struggle with increasing anarchy, which is steadily leading the country to destruction,” and to “fill up the police with selected reliable people.” [22]

On October 21, just four days before the provisional government was overthrown, Nikitin again urged government commissars

to make every effort to combat anarchy, using cavalry detachments where these were necessary. But the provisional government no longer had enough reliable troops to save its capital, much less to restore order all over the vast Russian countryside.

Many years later, Chernov regretted the day troops were used to suppress agrarian disorders:

That was stark madness. There was no better means of demoralizing the army than to send it, with its 90 percent of peasants, to crush the movement of millions of its brethren.

In Samara province the soldiers’ wives raised rebellion: “Let us go and mow the grass of the gentry; why are our husbands suffering for the third year?” The gentry brought a detachment of soldiers from Hvalynsk. But when the soldiers, who were the peasants themselves, saw the muzhiks mowing the rich grass, they tried their hand at mowing; they were tired of their rifles. The peasants fed the soldiers, talked to them, and then set to work all the harder.

In Tambov province, a military detachment came at the summons of Prince Vyazensky. It was greeted by a roar from the crowds: “What are you doing, coming to defend the prince, coming to beat your own fathers? Throw the devils into the river!” The commander took into his head to fire into the air. He was struck by a stone and ordered the troops to disperse the mob, but the soldiers did not stir. The officer spurred his horse and escaped from the enraged peasants by fording the river. His detachment scattered and let the crowd surround the prince, whom they arrested and sent to the front as a “slacker.” At a nearby station, he was lynched by a detachment of Siberian shock troops on their way to the front.

In Slavuta, Izyaslavsky district, Volhynia province, a detachment of fifty Cossacks was sent to the Sangushko estate to pacify the peasants. A detachment of infantry from the front was also quartered nearby. The Cossacks went out to reconnoiter in the woods. The soldiers then “set out with the peasants. First, they burst into the prince’s palace. The prince tried to flee. The soldiers quickly scattered to search for him. They overtook him near a steep bridge and tossed him on their bayonets. The soldiers and peasants, without wasting time, carried three iron chests from the mansion, with several million rubles in gold, silver, and paper money, distributed the money to the poor, and then burned the chambers of the prince. The peasants went boldly out to divide the land, afraid of no one.”

Grey-uniformed peasants, aroused by the revolution in the city, were sent against the village, which would not and could not go on indefinitely under the Tsarist agrarian laws, once Tsarism had fallen. A more suicidal policy could not have been invented. [23]

The SRs Split

From May 6 to the end of August, Chernov, founder, top leader, and theoretician of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, was minister of agriculture. He bore the primary responsibility for the state’s agrarian policy during the heyday of the provisional government. At his side, as deputy ministers, were the SRs N.I. Rakitnikov and P.A. Vikhliaev. Below the ministry, there was a hierarchy of land committees set up under the law of April 24, with volost or cantonal committees at the bottom of the structure and the Central Land Committee in Petrograd at the top.

The land committees ran the gamut of political coloration from a rosewater tint of intellectualism to the deeper red hue of direct action, the rule being that the closer to the base of the structure the weaker the role of the intellectuals and the greater the degree of radicalism. At all levels the SRs predominated, but they were not all the same kind of SRs, the dirt-soil peasants on the popularly elected volost committees having quite a different outlook from the theoretical revolutionists or technicians on the higher organs, where many of the members sat by appointment. The primary consideration with the former was to get the land before it eluded their grasp, as in 1905, and with the latter, to bridge over class differences while the war continued. [24]

By June the leadership of the movement to improve the status of the peasantry had passed into the hands of local land committees. In the absence of laws from the center, the committees went in for self-action: they lowered the payments on rented land, forbade landowners to increase the exploitation of forests while they still had them, took over untilled fields for assignment to peasants, and in general did things that the peasants demanded and the landowners resented. [25]

Early in the autumn, mass agrarian disorders broke out in Tambov province, a black earth region in the heart of SR country. The party chieftains of Petrograd were still determined to oppose the disorders, but not so the local SRs.

And so the whole Tambov organization, together with the Soviet hierarchy, stepped out of line with the party center, and with the all-Russian Executive Committee, and proposed that the provincial authorities put into effect the agrarian program without waiting for legislation on the national scale, which was never enacted. This was a revolutionary step in defiance of constituted authority, and if it opened up a novel solution of the existing deadlock by combining coalition in the capital with revolutionary action in the provinces, it also marked the crumbling of the main part of the party organization. [26]

Throughout 1917, a growing cleavage divided the SR Party between the left – those elements ready to go to the limit with the muzhiks against the landlords – and the right-wing leadership.

In March and April, the left SRs had acquired control of the peasant movement in certain provinces of Russia and the Ukraine, in Kazan and Ufa, in Kharkov and Kherson, and here and there were other islands of strength. [27] In the capital itself, Petrograd, from the beginning of the revolution, the local organization of the SRs was working-class in composition, left in politics, and aligned against the central leadership. In Kronstadt, the whole SR organization belonged to the left.

At the first All-Russian Conference of Soviets (March 29-April 3) a group of left SRs had already rebelled openly against the party leadership and supported the Bolshevik minority. With time the split in the party became wider and wider. The Kornilov coup gave further encouragement to the left SRs to assert their independence. In the October insurrection, they sided with the Bolsheviks, and collaborated with them in the government born out of the revolution.

Lenin Keeps Abreast of the Peasant Revolution

Lenin thrashed the agrarian question out so thoroughly during the 1905 Revolution that, by the time of the second revolution, his and the Bolsheviks’ ideas on the subject were very well defined.

First of all, the key to the agrarian revolution was the democratic mass organization of the rural population. In his article Socialism and the Peasantry, written in September 1905, Lenin had said:

There is only one way to make the agrarian reform, which is unavoidable in present-day Russia, play a revolutionary-democratic role: it must be effected on the revolutionary initiative of the peasants themselves, despite the landlords and the bureaucracy, and despite the state, i.e., it must be effected by revolutionary means ... And this is the road we indicate when we make our prime demand the establishment of revolutionary peasant committees. [28]

Now, at the beginning of April 1917, he wrote:

For the organization of the peasants, carried out from below without the officials and without the “control and supervision” of the landowners and their hangers-on, is the only reliable pledge of success for the revolution, for freedom. [29]

He reiterated the point in his Report on the Agrarian Question to the April Conference of the Party:

[T]o us, the thing that matters is revolutionary initiative, and the law must be the result of it. If you wait until the law is written, and yourselves do not develop revolutionary initiative, you will have neither the law nor the land. [30]

The peasants should not fall for the compromising argument: As to the land, wait until the constituent assembly. As to the constituent assembly, wait until the end of the war. As to the end of the war, wait until complete victory. That is what it comes to. The capitalists and landowners, having a majority in the government, are plainly mocking at the peasants. [31]

To counteract the bourgeois-liberal or purely bureaucratic sermons preached by many Socialist Revolutionaries and Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, who advise the peasants not to seize the landed estates and not to start the agrarian reform pending the convocation of the constituent assembly, the party of the proletariat must urge the peasants to carry out the agrarian reform at once on their own, and to confiscate the landed estates immediately, upon the decisions of the peasants’ deputies in the localities. [32]

He Proposes an Independent Organization of Agricultural Workers

Throughout the development of the agrarian policy of Bolshevism there were two central points in Lenin’s thinking: (1) the working class must lead the peasantry; (2) the workers must be organized separately from the peasants. Thus in 1906 he wrote:

[S]upporting the revolutionary peasant, the proletariat must not for a moment forget about its own class independence and its own special class aims. The peasant movement is the movement of another class. It is not a proletarian struggle, but a struggle waged by small proprietors. It is not a struggle against the foundation of capitalism, but a struggle to cleanse them of all survivals of serfdom. [33]

We stand by the peasant movement to the end; but we have to remember that it is the movement of another class, not the one which can and will bring about the socialist revolution. [34]

In 1917, he pursued the point further:

[I]t is necessary to organize separately the proletarian elements (agricultural laborers, day-laborers, etc.) within the general peasant Soviets, or (sometimes and) set up separate Soviets of Agricultural Laborers’ Deputies. [35]

In a speech to the First Congress of Peasant Deputies, on May 22, he said in the name of the Bolsheviks:

We should like, and we advise it, to have in each peasant committee, in each volost, uyezd, and guberniia, a separate group of agricultural laborers and poor peasants who will have to ask themselves: “If the land becomes the property of the whole people tomorrow – and it certainly will, because the people want it to – then where do we come in? Where shall we, who have no animals or implements, get them from? How are we to farm the land? How must we protect our interests? How are we to make sure that the land, which will belong to the whole people, which will really be the property of the nation, should not fall only into the hands of proprietors? If it falls into the hands of those who own enough animals and implements, shall we gain anything by it? Is that what we made this great revolution for? Is that what we wanted?” ... There is only one way to escape the yoke of capitalism and ensure that the people’s land goes to the working people, and that is by organizing the agricultural laborers, who will be guided by their experience, their observations, and their distrust of what the village sharks tell them even though these sharks wear red rosettes in their buttonholes and call themselves “revolutionary democrats.”

The poor peasants can only be taught by independent organization in the localities, they can only learn from their own experience. That experience will not be easy, we cannot and do not promise them a land flowing with milk and honey. The landowners will be thrown out because the people wish it, but capitalism will remain. It is much more difficult to do away with capitalism, and the road to its overthrow is a different one. It is the road of independent, separate organization of the agricultural laborers and the poor peasants. And that is what our party proposes in the first instance. [36]

In a couple of articles entitled The Need for an Agricultural Laborers’ Union in Russia, written specially for the All-Russian Trade Union Conference of June 21-28, Lenin said:

All classes in Russia are organizing. Only the class which is the most exploited and the poorest of all, the most disunited and downtrodden – the class of Russia’s agricultural wage-laborers – seems to have been forgotten ...

It is the indisputable and paramount duty of the vanguard of Russia’s proletariat, the industrial workers’ trade unions, to come to the aid of their brothers, the rural workers.

The industrial workers should “not confine themselves to narrow craft interests and forget their weaker brethren.” Lenin went on to outline some necessary practical steps:

All organized workers should give one day’s wages to promote and strengthen the unity of town and country wage-workers – Let this fund be drawn on to cover the expenses of putting out a series of the most popular leaflets, of publishing a rural workers’ newspaper – at least a weekly to begin with – and of sending at least a few agitators and organizers to the countryside to immediately set up unions of agricultural laborers in the various localities.

A most determined war must be declared on the preconceived notion that the coming abolition of private landownership can “give land” to every farmhand and day-laborer and undermine the very foundations of wage-labor in agriculture. This is a preconceived notion and, moreover, an extremely harmful one ... You cannot eat land. You cannot farm without livestock, implements, seed, a reserve of produce, or money. To rely on “promises” from anyone – that the wage-workers in the countryside will be “helped” to acquire livestock, implements, etc. – would be the worst kind of error, unpardonable naivety ...

That is why it must be made the immediate task of the rural workers’ trade union not only to fight for better conditions for the workers in general, but in particular to defend their interests as a class during the coming great land reform. [37]

Organize the Large Farms

Lenin made it clear that the organization of agricultural workers in trade unions, or even Soviets, was not enough to overcome the exploitation in the countryside. Thus he wrote in April 1917:

We cannot conceal from the peasants, least of all from the rural proletarians and semi-proletarians, that small-scale farming under commodity economy and capitalism cannot rid humanity of mass poverty, that it is necessary to think about going over to large-scale farming conducted on public lines and to tackle this job at once by teaching the masses, and in turn learning from the masses, the practical expedient measures for bringing about such a transition. [38]

In a speech to the Congress of Peasants’ Deputies, already quoted above, Lenin stated:

[O]ur party recommends ... that every big economy, for example, every big landed estate, of which there are 30,000 in Russia, should be organized as soon as possible into a model farm for the common cultivation of the land jointly by agricultural laborers and scientifically trained agronomists, using the animals, implements, etc., of the landowners for that purpose. Without this common cultivation under the direction of the Soviets of Agricultural Laborers, the land will not go entirely to the working people. To be sure, joint cultivation is a difficult business and it would be madness of course for anybody to imagine that joint cultivation of the land can be decreed from above and imposed on people, because the centuries-old habit of farming on one’s own cannot suddenly disappear, and because money will be needed for it and adaptation to the new mode of life. [39]

Lenin Steals the SR Program

Lenin did not hesitate to adopt the program that emerged from the mass peasant movement, and that was by and large identical with the program of the SR Party.

On August 19, 1917, the Izvestiia of the All-Russian Congress of Peasants’ Deputies published an article entitled Model Mandate Compiled on the Basis of 242 Mandates Submitted by Local Deputies to the First All-Russian Congress of Peasants’ Deputies Held in Petrograd, 1917. The crucial points of the mandate were

abolition of private ownership of all types of land, including the peasants’ lands, without compensation; transfer of lands on which high-standard scientific farming is practised to the state or the communes; confiscation of all livestock and implements on the confiscated lands (peasants with little land are excluded) and their transfer to the state or the communes; a ban on wage-labor; equalized distribution of land among the working people, with periodical redistributions, and so on. In the transition period, pending the convocation of the constituent assembly, the peasants demand the immediate enactment of laws prohibiting the purchase and sale of land, abolition of laws concerning separation from the commune, farmsteads, etc., laws protecting forests, fisheries, etc., abolishing long-term and revising short-term leases, and so on. [40]

Lenin, who was in hiding in Finland and was now convinced that the moment for the seizure of power was near, thought that the model decree was central to the success of the revolution.

The Socialist-Revolutionaries are deceiving themselves and the peasants precisely by assuming and spreading the idea that these reforms, or similar reforms, are possible without overthrowing capitalist rule, without all state power being transferred to the proletariat, without the peasant poor supporting the most resolute, revolutionary measures of a proletarian state power against the capitalists. [41]

The 242 demands, he argued, could be realized only when a ruthless war was declared on capitalism under the leadership of the proletariat. Thus he took over in toto the declared agrarian program of the SRs, but added to it the vital twist that it could be achieved only as part of a proletarian revolution against capitalism. The demands were destined to be incorporated in the decree on land of the Bolshevik government issued on October 26. When this was submitted to the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, and protests were heard that it was the work of the SRs, Lenin replied:

Voices are being raised here that the decree itself and the mandate were drawn up by the Socialist Revolutionaries. What of it? Does it matter who drew them up? As a democratic government, we cannot ignore the decision of the masses of the people, even though we may disagree with it. In the fire of experience, applying the decree in practice, and carrying it out locally, the peasants will themselves realize where the truth lies. And even if the peasants continue to follow the Socialist Revolutionaries, even if they give this party a majority in the constituent assembly we shall still say – what of it? Experience is the best teacher and it will show who is right. Let the peasants solve this problem from one end and we shall solve it from the other. Experience will oblige us to draw together in the general stream of revolutionary creative work, in the elaboration of new state forms. We must be guided by experience; we must allow complete freedom to the creative faculties of the masses. [42]

How pathetic was Chernov’s complaint: “Lenin copies out our resolutions, and publishes them in the form of ‘Decrees’.” [43] Lenin’s justification was very simple: the needs of the revolution were the supreme law. He wrote:

We Bolsheviks were opposed to this law. Yet we signed it, because we did not want to oppose the will of the majority of peasants. The majority will is binding on us always, and to oppose the majority will is to betray the revolution.

We did not want to impose on the peasants the idea that the equal division of the land was useless, an idea which was alien to them. Far better, we thought, if, by their own experience and suffering, the peasants themselves come to realize that equal division is nonsense. Only then could we ask them how they would escape the ruin and kulak domination that follow from the division of the land. [44]

When a German delegate at the Second Congress of the Comintern in 1920 accused the Soviet government of a “direct relapse into long outworn petty-bourgeois ways of thought” and “a sacrifice of the interests of the proletariat in favor of the peasantry,” Lenin tartly replied that “otherwise the small peasant will not notice the difference between the former government and the dictatorship of the Soviets,” and that “if the proletarian state power does not act in this way, it will not be able to maintain itself.” [45]

It was a paradox of history that, under a government in which a number of SRs participated, the peasants had to take the road of revolution in order to carry out the SR program, supported and led by the Bolsheviks, who fought the SRs for many years.

Organizationally the Bolsheviks were extremely weak in the countryside. There were only a handful of party members living in the villages. Nevertheless, the willingness of Lenin and the Bolsheviks to listen to the peasants gave them an impact greatly disproportionate to their organizational strength.

Lenin knew how to learn from the muzhik, and the latter appreciated it. Consider his appearance before the peasant congress on May 20. It seemed, says Sukhanov, as though Lenin had blundered into a pit of crocodiles. However, “The little muzhiks listened attentively and probably not without sympathy. But they dared not show it.” [46]

The same thing was repeated in the soldiers’ section, which was extremely hostile to the Bolsheviks. Sukhanov relates:

I sat down in about the seventh row, in the heart of the soldier audience. The soldiers were listening with the greatest interest as Lenin berated the coalition’s agrarian policy and proposed that they should settle the matter on their own authority, without any constituent assembly. But the speaker was soon interrupted by the chair: his time was up. Some arguing began about whether to allow Lenin to continue his speech. The Presidium evidently didn’t want to, but the assembly had nothing against it. Lenin, bored, was standing on the platform wiping his bald spot with a handkerchief; recognizing me from a distance he nodded to me gaily. I heard comments around me: “Talks sense, hey?” one soldier said to the other.

By a majority vote the assembly ordered that Lenin be allowed to finish speaking. The ice was broken: Lenin and his principles had begun penetrating even the nucleus of the Praetorians. [47]

In the Congress of Peasants’ Soviets, Lenin got only 20 votes, against the 810 received by Chernov, and Kerensky’s 804. But the latter became more and more open enemies of the peasant revolutionary movement, while Lenin was completely in tune with it.

Lenin’s Identification with the Oppressed

There was nothing more foreign to Lenin than the aristocratic attitude of Liberal-Mensheviks towards the “dark” muzhik. One has only to compare Lenin’s position with, let us say, that of the left Menshevik Sukhanov. Sukhanov’s writing is full of disdain for the crudity of the peasantry.

Out of the trenches and obscure holes and corners had crept utterly crude and ignorant people whose devotion to the revolution was spite and despair, while their “socialism” was hunger and an unendurable longing for rest. Not bad material for experiments but – those experiments would be risky. [48]

How horrible the peasant in uniform looks:

right there, over the very cradle, at the very helm of the revolution there stood the peasantry, in all its terrible mass, and holding a rifle into the bargain. It was declaring: “I am the lord not only of the country, not only of the Russian state, but of the revolution, which could not have been accomplished without me” ... The army’s direct participation in the revolution was no more than a form of peasant interference in the revolutionary process. From my point of view, that of a Marxist and internationalist, it was profoundly harmful. [49]

In Sukhanov’s eyes, Lenin’s support of the peasants was a capitulation to anarchism.

Lenin, by “giving the peasants the land at once” and preaching seizure, was in fact subscribing to anarchist tactics and an SR program. Both one and the other were pleasing and understandable to the peasant, who was far from being a fanatical upholder of Marxism. But both one and the other had been railed at night and day by the Marxist Lenin for at least fifteen years. Now this was flung aside. To please the peasants and be understood by them Lenin became both an anarchist and an SR. [50]

On the contrary, as early as 1905, Lenin had understood how to learn from the muzhik and to perceive the heartbeat of the revolutionary democrat even behind the peasants’ monarchist exterior. [51]

He felt with the peasants who were rising from the depths, who, after centuries of oppression and darkness, were aroused for the first time by the thunder of revolution to assert themselves as human beings. He quoted with approval a letter from a peasant to the Moscow Bolshevik daily, Sotsial-Demokrat: “‘[W]e must,’ says the letter, ‘press the bourgeoisie harder to make them burst at the seams ... But things will turn out badly if we don’t press the bourgeoisie hard enough.’” [52]

Clouds on the Horizon

However, there were dark clouds on the horizon. The Bolsheviks failed completely in their efforts to organize the agricultural workers into trade unions. Soviets of agricultural workers became important only in a very few localities, mainly in the Baltic provinces. To run ahead of our story, the estates – even those worked as large-scale units – were mostly broken up and not preserved as model farms, as Lenin wanted. In the summer and autumn of 1918, the Bolsheviks made a brief concerted effort to organize the rural poor in separate bodies – in Committees of Poor Peasants. The committees survived for only a few months before the Bolsheviks had to disband them.

Rosa Luxemburg argued prophetically, shortly after the October Revolution, that a socialist land policy must aim to encourage the socialization of agricultural production:

[O]nly the nationalization of the large landed estates, as the technically most advanced and most concentrated means and methods of agrarian production, can serve as the point of departure for the socialist mode of production on the land. Of course, it is not necessary to take away from the small peasant his parcel of land, and we can with confidence leave him to be won over voluntarily by the superior advantages of social production and to be persuaded of the advantages first of union in cooperatives and then finally of inclusion in the general socialized economy as a whole. Still, every socialist economic reform on the land must obviously begin with large and medium land ownership. Here the property right must first of all be turned over to the nation, or to the state, which, with a socialist government, amounts to the same thing; for it is this alone which affords the possibility of organizing agricultural production in accord with the requirements of interrelated, large-scale social production.

The Bolsheviks did the opposite: they gave the land to the individualistic peasants:

Formerly there was only a small caste of noble and capitalist landed proprietors and a small minority of rich village bourgeoisie to oppose a socialist reform on the land. And their expropriation by a revolutionary mass movement of the people is mere child’s play. But now, after the “seizure,” as an opponent of any attempt at socialization of agrarian production, there is an enormous, newly developed and powerful mass of owning peasants who will defend their newly won property with tooth and nail against every socialist attack. [53]

This isolation of a small working class in a sea of antagonistic, backward, petty-capitalist peasants, proved to be crucially important in Stalin’s rise to power. Rosa Luxemburg’s estimate of the Bolshevik land policy shows true insight into the situation in the Russian Revolution, and points out the dangers frequently inherent in their policies. But the situation did not give the Bolsheviks any choice about the revolutionary land policy they implemented: acceding to the democratic, spontaneous wish of the peasants to distribute the land expropriated from the landlords.

The fact that the agricultural workers did not act independently from the property-owning peasants testified to the backwardness of capitalism in Russia. The fact that at the same time the agrarian revolution was so strong and drew in all layers of the peasantry showed how far capitalist development had taken place, and had come into conflict with the old forms of landed property.

The prospective conflict between the mass of the Russian property-owning peasantry and the small proletariat, Lenin knew, could lead to great difficulties in the future. However, he believed that it could be overcome by the international spread of the proletarian revolution.




1*. August 27-30. See Chapter 16.




1. Sukhanov, pp.328-29.

2. M. Ferro, The Aspirations of Russian Society, in Pipes, Revolutionary Russia, p.149.

3. Quoted in V. Chernov, The Great Russian Revolution, New York 1966, p.256.

4. Quoted in Lenin, Collected Works, vol.24, p.365.

5. Browder and Kerensky, vol.2, p.582.

6. K.G. Kotelnikov and C.V.L. Meller, Krestianskoe dvizhenie v 1917 godu, Moscow-Leningrad 1927, Appendix.

7. M. Miliutin, Agrarnaia revoliutsiia, Moscow 1927, p.172.

8. Browder and Kerensky, vol.2, p.593.

9. Browder and Kerensky, vol.2, p.576.

10. Browder and Kerensky, vol.2, p.525.

11. Browder and Kerensky, vol.2, pp.527-28.

12. Radkey, The Agrarian Foes of Bolshevism, p.253.

13. Radkey, The Agrarian Foes of Bolshevism, p.255.

14. Radkey, The Agrarian Foes of Bolshevism, p.448.

15. Browder and Kerensky, vol.2, p.527.

16. Browder and Kerensky, vol.2, pp.583-84.

17. Chernov, pp.256-57.

18. Browder and Kerensky, vol.2, p.584.

19. Browder and Kerensky, vol.2, pp.567-68.

20. Kotelnikov and Meller, pp.420-21.

21. Miliutin,p. 182.

22. Kotelnikov and Meller, pp.420-21.

23. Chernov, pp.262-63.

24. Radkey, The Agrarian Foes of Bolshevism, p.246.

25. Radkey, The Agrarian Foes of Bolshevism, pp.257-58.

26. Radkey, The Agrarian Foes of Bolshevism, pp.438-39.

27. Radkey, The Agrarian Foes of Bolshevism, p.192.

28. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.9, p.315.

29. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.24, p.167.

30. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.24, p.285.

31. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.25, p.227.

32. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.24, p.72.

33. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.10, p.411.

34. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.10, p.191.

35. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.24, p.168.

36. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.24, pp.501-02.

37. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.25, pp.122-25.

38. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.24, p.169.

39. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.24, p.502.

40. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.25, pp.275-76.

41. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.25, p.276.

42. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, pp.260-61.

43. Delo Naroda, November 17, 1917.

44. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.28, p.175.

45. Protokoll des Zweiten Weltkongresses der Kommunistischen Internationale, Hamburg 1921, p.318; Lenin, Sochineniia, vol.25, p.359; E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, London 1952, vol.2, p.166.

46. Sukhanov, p.371.

47. Sukhanov, pp.371-72.

48. Sukhanov, p.635.

49. Sukhanov, pp.201-02.

50. Sukhanov, p.553.

51. See Cliff, pp.216-19.

52. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.25, p.42.

53. R. Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, New York 1940, pp.18-21.


Last updated on 25.10.2007