V. I.   Lenin

The Workers’ Party and the Peasantry[2]

Written: Written in February 1901
Published: Published in April 1901 in Iskra, No. 3. Published according to the Iskra text.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1964, Moscow, Volume 4, pages 420-428.
Transcription\Markup: R. Cymbala and D. Walters
Public Domain: Lenin Internet Archive (2003). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.
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Forty years have passed since the peasants were emancipated. It is quite natural that the public should celebrate with particular enthusiasm February 19, the anniversary of the fall of old feudal Russia and the beginning of an epoch which promised the people liberty and prosperity. But we must not forget that besides genuine loathing of serfdom and all its manifestations, there is also much unctuousness in the laudatory orations delivered on the occasion. The now fashionable estimation of the “great” Reform as “the emancipation of the peasantry accompanied by a grant of land with the aid of state compensation” is utterly hypocritical and false. Actually, the peasants were emancipated from the land, inasmuch as the plots they had tilled for centuries were ruthlessly cut down and hundreds of thousands of peasants were deprived of all their land and settled on a quarter or beggar’s allotment.[3] In point of fact, the peasants were doubly robbed: not only were their plots of land cut down, but they had to pay “redemption money” for the land left to them, and which had always been in their possession; the redemption price, moreover, was far above the actual value of the land. Ten years after the emancipation of the peasantry the landlords themselves admitted to government officials investigating the state of agriculture that the peasants had been made to pay, not only for their land, but for their personal liberty. Yet, although the peasants had to pay redemption money for their liberation, they were not granted real freedom; for twenty years they remained “temporarily bound”[4]; they were left—and have remained to this day—the lowest social-estate, subject to flogging;   liable to special taxes; bereft of the right freely to leave the semi-feudal commune, freely to dispose of their own land, or freely to settle in any part of the country. Our peasant Reform, far from manifesting magnanimity of the government, on the contrary, serves as a great historical example of the extent to which the autocratic government befouls everything it touches. Under pressure of military defeat, appalling financial difficulties, and menacing discontent among the peasantry, the government was actually compelled to liberate the peasants. The tsar himself admitted that the peasants had to be emancipated from above, lest they emancipate themselves from below. But in embarking on emancipation, the government did everything possible and impossible to satisfy the greed of the “injured” serf-owners; it did not even stop at the base device of reshuffling the men who were to carry out the Reform, although the men selected had come from among the nobility itself! The first body of mediators was dissolved and replaced by men incapable of refusing to help the serf-owners cheat the peasantry in the very process of demarcating the land. Nor could the great Reform be carried out with out resort to military punitive action and the shooting-down of peasants who refused to accept the title-deeds to the land.[5] It is not surprising, therefore, that the best men of the time, muzzled by the censors, met this great Reform with the silence of condemnation.

The peasant, “emancipated” from corvée service, emerged from the hands of the reformers crushed, plundered, degraded, tied to his allotment, so much so that he had no alternative but “voluntarily” to accept corvée services. And so he began to cultivate the land of his former master, “renting” from him the very land that had been cut off from his own allotment, hiring himself out in the winter for summer work in return for the corn he had to borrow from the landlord to feed his hungry family. The “free labour,” for which the manifesto drawn up by a jesuitical priest called upon the peasantry to ask the “blessing of God,” turned out to be nothing more nor less than labour-service and bondage.

To oppression by the landlords, which was preserved thanks to the magnanimity of the officials who introduced   and carried out the Reform, was added oppression by capital. The power of money, which crushed even the French peasant, emancipated from the power of the feudal landlords, not by a miserable, half-hearted reform, but by a mighty popular revolution—this power of money bore down with all its weight upon our semi-serf muzhik. He had to obtain money at all costs—in order to pay the taxes which had increased as a result of the beneficent Reform, to rent land, to buy the few miserable articles of factory-made goods which began to squeeze out the home manufactures of the peasant, to buy corn, etc. The power of money not only crushed the peasantry, but split it up. An enormous number of peasants were steadily ruined and turned into proletarians; from the minority arose a small group of grasping kulaks and enterprising muzhiks who laid hands upon the peasant farms and the peasants’ lands, and who formed the kernel of the rising rural bourgeoisie. The forty years since the Reform have been marked by this constant process of “de-peasantising” the peasants, a process of slow and painful extinction. The peasant was reduced to beggary. He lived together with his cattle, was clothed in rags, and fared on weeds; he fled from his allotment, if he had anywhere to go, and even paid to be relieved of it, if he could induce anyone to take over a plot of land, the payments on which exceeded the income it yielded. The peasants were in a state of chronic starvation, and they died by the tens of thousands from famine and epidemics in bad harvest years, which recurred with increasing frequency.

This is the state of our countryside even at the present time. One might ask: What is the way out, by what means can the lot of the peasantry be improved? The small peasantry can free itself from the yoke of capital only by associating itself with the working-class movement, by helping the workers in their struggle for the socialist system, for transforming the land, as well as the other means of production (factories, works, machines, etc.), into social property. Trying to save the peasantry by protecting small-scale farming and small holdings from the onslaught of capitalism would be a useless retarding of social development; it would mean deceiving the peasantry with illusions of the possibility of prosperity even under capitalism,   it would mean disuniting the labouring classes and creating a privileged position for the minority at the expense of the majority. That is why Social-Democrats will always struggle against senseless and vicious institutions such as that which forbids the peasant to dispose of his land, such as collective liability, or the system of prohibiting the peasants from freely leaving the village commune or freely accepting into it persons belonging to any social-estate. But, as we have seen, our peasants are suffering not only and not so much from oppression by capital as from oppression by the land lords and the survivals of serfdom. Ruthless struggle against these shackles, which immeasurably worsen the condition of the peasantry and tie it hand and foot, is not only possible but even necessary in the interest of the country’s social development in general; for the hopeless poverty, ignorance, lack of rights, and degradation, from which the peasants suffer, lay an imprint of Asiatic backwardness upon the entire social system of our country. Social-Democracy would not be doing its duty if it did not render every assistance to this struggle. This assistance should take the form, briefly put, of carrying the class struggle into the countryside.

We have seen that in the modern Russian village two kinds of class antagonism exist side by side: first, the antagonism between the agricultural workers and the proprietors, and, secondly, the antagonism between the peasantry as a whole and the landlord class as a whole. The first antagonism is developing and becoming more acute; the second is gradually diminishing. The first is still wholly in the future; the second to a considerable degree already belongs to the past. And yet, despite this, it is the second antagonism that has the most vital and most practical significance for Russian Social-Democrats at the present time. It goes without saying, it is an axiom for every Social-Democrat, that we must utilise all the opportunities presenting themselves to us to develop the class-consciousness of the agricultural wage-workers, that we must pay attention to the migration of urban workers to the countryside (e.g., mechanics employed on steam threshing machines, etc.) and to the markets where agricultural labourers are hired.

But our rural labourers are still too closely connected with the peasantry, they are still too heavily burdened with the misfortunes of the peasantry as a whole to enable the movement of the rural workers to assume national significance, either now or in the immediate future. On the other hand, the question of sweeping away the survivals of serfdom, of driving the spirit of social-estate inequality and degradation of tens of millions of the “common people” out of the whole of the Russian state system is already a matter of national significance, and the Party which claims to be the vanguard in the fight for freedom cannot ignore it.

The deplorable condition of the peasantry has now be come (in a more or less general form) almost universally recognised. The phrase about “the defects” of the Reform of 1861 and the need for state aid has become a current truism. It is our duty to point out that peasant distress arises precisely from the class oppression of the peasantry; that the government is the loyal champion of the oppressing classes; and that those who sincerely and seriously desire a radical improvement in the condition of the peasantry must seek, not aid from the government, but deliverance from its oppression and the achievement of political liberty. There is talk of the redemption payments being excessively high, and of benevolent measures on the part of the government to reduce them and extend the dates of payment. Our reply to this is: all payment of redemption money is nothing more nor less than robbery of the peasantry by the landlords and the government, screened by legal forms and bureaucratic phrases; it is nothing more nor less than tribute paid to the serf-owners for emancipating their slaves. We will put forward the demand for the immediate and complete abolition of redemption payments and quit-rents, and the demand for the return to the people of the hundreds of millions which the tsarist government has extorted from them in the course of the years to satisfy the greed of the slaveowners. There is talk of the peasants not having sufficient land, of the need for state aid to provide them with more land. Our reply to this is: it is precisely because of state aid (aid to the landlords, of course) that the peasants in such an enormous number of cases were deprived of land they vitally needed. We put forward the demand for restitution to the peasants of the land of which they have been deprived, a condition that still binds them to forced labour, to the rendering of corvée service, i.e., that virtually keeps them in a state of serfdom. We will put forward the demand for the establishment of peasant committees to remove the crying injustices perpetrated against the emancipated slaves by the Committees of Nobles set up by the tsarist government. We will demand the establishment of courts empowered to reduce the excessively high payment for land extorted from the peasants by the landlords who take advantage of their hopeless position, courts in which the peasants could prosecute for usury all who take advantage of their extreme need to impose shackling agreements upon them. We will utilise every opportunity to explain to the peasants that the people who talk to them about the tutelage or aid of the present state are either fools or charlatans, and are their worst enemies; that what the peasants stand most in need of is relief from the monstrous oppression of the bureaucratic power, recognition of their complete and absolute equality in all respects with all other social-estates, complete freedom of movement from place to place, freedom to dispose of their lands, and freedom to manage their own communal affairs and dispose of the communal revenues. The most common facts in the life of any Russian village provide a thousand issues for agitation in behalf of the above demands. This agitation must be based upon the local, concrete, and most pressing needs of the peasantry; yet it must not be confined to these needs, but must be steadily directed towards widening the outlook of the peasants, towards developing their political consciousness. The peasants must be brought to understand the special positions occupied in the state by the landlords and the peasants respectively, and they must be taught that the only way to free the countryside from tyrannical oppression is to convene an assembly of representatives of the people and to overthrow the arbitrary rule of the officials. It is absurd to assert that the demand for political liberty would not be understood by the workers; not only the workers who have engaged the factory owners and the police in direct battle for years and who constantly see their best fighters subjected to arbitrary arrests and persecution—not   only these workers, who are already imbued with socialism, but every sensible peasant who thinks at all about the things he sees going on around him will understand what the workers are fighting for, will understand the significance of a Zemsky Sobor which will emancipate the whole country from the unlimited power of the hated officials. Agitation on the basis of the direct and most urgent needs of the peasants will fulfil its purpose—i.e., carry the class struggle into the countryside—only when it succeeds in combining every exposure of some “economic” evil with definite political demands.

But the question arises whether the Social-Democratic Labour Party can include in its programme demands like those referred to above. Can it undertake to carry on agitation among the peasantry? Will it not lead to the scattering and diversion of our revolutionary forces, not very numerous as it is, from the principal and only reliable channel of the movement?

Such objections are based on a misunderstanding. We must definitely include in our programme demands for the emancipation of our countryside from all the survivals of slavery, demands capable of rousing the best section of the peasantry, if not to engage in independent political action, then at all events consciously to support the working-class struggle for emancipation. We should be making a mistake if we defended measures that would have the effect of retarding social development or of artificially shielding the small peasantry against the growth of capitalism, against the development of large-scale production; but we should be committing a much more disastrous mistake if we failed to utilise the working-class movement for the purpose of spreading among the peasantry the democratic demands of which the Reform of February 19, 1861, fell short because of its distortion by the landlords and the officials. Our Party must include such demands in its programme if it is to take the lead of the whole people in the struggle against the autocracy.[1]   But the inclusion of these points does not mean that we would call active revolutionary forces from the towns to the villages. Such a thing is out of the question. There can be no doubt that all the militant elements of the Party must concentrate on work in the towns and industrial centres; that only the industrial proletariat is capable of conducting a steadfast and mass struggle against the autocracy, of employing such methods of struggle as organising public demonstrations, or of issuing a popular political newspaper regularly and circulating it widely. We must include peasant demands in our programme, not in order to call convinced Social-Democrats from the towns to the countryside, not in order to chain them to the village, but to guide the activities of those forces that cannot find an outlet anywhere except in the rural localities and to utilise for the cause of democracy, for the political struggle for freedom, the ties which, owing to the force of circumstances, a good many faithful Social-Democratic intellectuals and workers have with the countryside—ties that are necessarily increasing and growing stronger with the growth of the movement. We have long passed the stage when we were a small detachment of volunteers, when the reserves of Social-Democratic forces were limited to circles of young people who all “went to the workers.” Our movement now has a whole army at its command, an army of workers, engaged in the struggle for socialism and freedom—an army of intellectuals who have been taking part in the movement and who can now be found over the whole length and breadth of Russia—an army of sympathisers whose eyes are turned with faith and hope towards the working-class movement and who are prepared to render it a thousand services. We are confronted with the great task of organising all these armies in such a manner as will enable us, not only to organise transient outbreaks, not only to strike casual and sporadic (and therefore not dangerous) blows at the enemy, but to pursue the enemy steadily and persistently, in a determined struggle all along the line, to harass the autocratic government wherever it sows oppression and gathers a harvest of hatred. Can this aim be achieved without sowing the seeds of the class struggle and political consciousness among the many millions of the peasantry? Let no one say it is impossible   to sow these seeds! It is not only possible, it is already being done in a thousand ways that escape our attention and influence. This process will evolve much more widely and rapidly when we issue a slogan that will bring our influence to bear and when we unfurl the banner of the emancipation of the Russian peasantry from all the survivals of shameful serfdom. Country people coming to the towns even today regard with curiosity and interest the workers’ struggle, incomprehensible to them, and carry news of it to the remotest parts of the land. We can and must bring about a situation in which the curiosity of the bystanders is replaced, if not by full understanding, then at least by a vague consciousness that the workers are struggling for the interests of the whole people, by a growing sympathy for their struggle. And when that has been done, the day of the victory of the revolutionary workers’ party over the police government will come with a rapidity exceeding our own anticipation.


[1] We have drafted a Social-Democratic programme which includes the above-mentioned demands. We hope—after this draft has been discussed and amended with the participation of the Emancipation of Labour group—to publish it as the draft programme of our Party in one of our forthcoming issues. —Lenin

[2] The article, “The Workers’ Party and the Peasantry,” was written in connection with the elaboration of the agrarian programme of the R.S.D.L.P., published in the name of the Editorial Board of Iskra and Zarya in the summer of 1902 and adopted by the Second Congress of the R.S.D.L.P. in 1903.

[3] A quarter or beggar’s allotment—a quarter of the so-called “maximum” or “decree” allotment, the amount established by law for a given district at the time of the Reform of 1861. Some of the peasants received these tiny parcels of land from the landlords wit out payment of redemption money. Such allotments were, therefore, also called “gift allotments” and the peasants who received them were called “gift peasants.”

[4] Temporarily bound peasants—peasants who were still compelled to carry out certain duties (payment of quit-rent or performance of corvée service) for the use of their land even after the Reform and until they started paying redemption money to the landlord for their allotment.

From the moment the redemption contract was concluded, the peasants ceased to be “temporarily bound” and joined the category of “peasant property-owners.”

[5] These title-deeds were documents defining the land-owning relations of temporarily bound peasants and landlords upon the abolition of serfdom in 1861. The title-deed indicated the amount of land used by the peasant before the Reform and the land and other properties that remained in his hands after “emancipation”; the deed also listed the duties the peasant had to perform for the land lord. The amount of redemption money to be paid by the peasant was determined on the basis of this title-deed.

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