V. I.   Lenin

“The Peasant Reform” and the Proletarian-Peasant Revolution

Published: Sotsial-Demokrat, No. 21–22. March 19 (April 1), 1911. Published according to the Sotsial-Demokrat text.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, [1974], Moscow, Volume 17, pages 119-128.
Translated: Dora Cox
Transcription\Markup: R. Cymbala
Public Domain: Lenin Internet Archive (2004). 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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The celebration of the jubilee, so much feared by the Romanov monarchy, and over which the Russian liberals have gushed so sentimentally, is over. The tsar’s government celebrated it by assiduously circulating “among the people” the Black-Hundred jubilee pamphlets issued by the “National Club”, by wholesale arrests of all “suspects”, by banning meetings at which speeches of even the slightest democratic tinge might be expected, by fining and suppressing news papers, and by persecuting “subversive” cinemas.

The liberals celebrated the jubilee by weeping buckets of tears about the necessity of “a second February 19” (Vestnik Yevropy[1]), by expressing their allegiance (the tsar’s picture appearing prominently in Rech), and by indulging in talk about their civic despondency, the fragility of the native “Constitution”, the devastating “break-up” of the “time honoured principles of land tenure” by Stolypin’s agrarian policy, and so on, and so forth.

In an edict addressed to Stolypin, Nicholas II declared that Stolypin’s agrarian policy was the final stage of “the great Reform” of February 19, 1861, i. e., the surrender of peasant land to be plundered by a handful of bloodsuckers, kulaks, and well-to-do peasants, and the surrender of the countryside to the rule of the feudal landowners.

It must be admitted that Nicholas the Bloody, Russia’s premier landowner, is nearer to the historical truth than our amiable liberals. The biggest landowner and the chief feudal lord is aware of, or rather has learned from the exhortation of the Council of the United Nobility, the maxim of the class struggle according to which “reforms” that are carried out by feudal lords must of necessity be   feudal in every aspect, must of necessity be accompanied by a regime of out and out violence. Our Cadets, and our liberals in general, fear the revolutionary movement of the masses, which alone is capable of wiping the feudal land owners and their unlimited power in the Russian state from the face of the earth; and this fear prevents them from appreciating the truth that so long as the feudal landowners have not been overthrown, every reform—and, particularly, every agrarian reform—is bound to be feudal in its aspect and nature, and in its mode of application. To fear revolution, to dream of reform, and to snivel because in practice “reforms” are applied by the feudal lords in a feudal way, is the height of baseness and stupidity. Nicholas II is much more straightforward and does more to teach the Russian people sense when he clearly “offers” them the plain choice: either feudal “reforms” or the overthrow of the feudal land owners by a people’s revolution.

The Reform of February 19, 1861, was a feudal reform which our liberals are able to dress up and represent as a “peaceful” reform only because at that time the revolutionary movement in Russia was so weak as to amount to nothing, and, as for a revolutionary class, there existed none among the oppressed masses of those days. The decree of November 9, 1906, and the law of June 14, 1910, are feudal reforms with as much bourgeois content as the Reform of 1861; but the liberals cannot represent these as “peaceful” reforms, they cannot dress them up so easily (although they are already beginning to do so, as for instance, in Russkaya Mysl), for the few isolated revolutionaries of 1861 may be forgotten, but the Revolution of 1905 cannot be forgotten. The year 1905 saw the birth of a revolutionary class in Russia, the proletariat, which succeeded in rousing the peasant masses to the revolutionary struggle. And once a revolutionary class has been born in any country it cannot be suppressed by any amount of persecution; it can only perish if the whole country perishes, it can only die, after it has attained victory.

Let us call to mind the basic features of the Peasant Reform of 1861. The notorious “emancipation” meant the   unscrupulous robbery of the peasants and their subjection to an endless succession of tyrannies and insults. “Emancipation” was seized upon as a pretext to cut off part of the peasants’ land. In the black-earth gubernias these cut-off lands amounted to more than one-fifth of the total held by peasants; in some gubernias the land that was cut off, taken away from the peasants, amounted to one-third or even two-fifths of all the peasants’ land. As a result of “emancipation” the peasants’ land was so divided from the landed estates as to compel the peasants to settle on “bad land”, and the landed estates were wedged into the peasants’ land to make it easier for the noble lords to enslave the peasants and to lease land to them on usurious terms. As a result of “emancipation”, the peasants were forced to “redeem” their own land, moreover, they were forced to pay double or treble its real price. The overall result of the whole “epoch of reforms” which marked the 1860s was that the peasants remained poverty-stricken, downtrodden, ignorant, and subject to the feudal landowners in the courts, in the organs of administration, in the schools, and in the Zemstvos.

The “great Reform” was a feudal reform; nor could it be anything else, for it was carried out by the feudal landowners. But what was the force that compelled them to resort to reform? It was the force of economic development which was drawing Russia on to the path of capitalism. The feudal landowners could not prevent the growth of trade between Russia and Europe; they could not bolster up the old, tottering forms of economic life. The Crimean war demonstrated the rottenness and impotence of feudal Russia. The peasant “riots”, which had been growing in number and intensity in the decades prior to emancipation, compelled Alexander II, the country’s biggest landowner, to admit that it would be better to emancipate from above than to wait until he was overthrown from below.

The Peasant Reform” was a bourgeois reform carried out by feudal landowners. It was a step in the transformation of Russia into a bourgeois monarchy. In substance the Peasant Reform was a bourgeois measure. The less the amount of land cut off from the peasants’ holdings, the more fully peasant lands were separated from the landed estates, the lower the tribute paid to the feudal landowners   by the peasants (i. e., the lower the “redemption” payments) and the greater the extent the peasants in any locality were able to escape the influence and pressure of the feudal landowners—the more obvious was the bourgeois essence of the Reform. To the extent that the peasant extricated himself from the clutches of the feudal landowner, he became a slave to the power of money, found himself living in the conditions of commodity production and dependent on rising capitalism. After 1861 capitalism developed in Russia at such a rapid rate that in a few decades it wrought a transformation that had taken centuries in some of the old countries of Europe.

The celebrated struggle between the feudal landowners and the liberals, which our liberal and liberal-Narodnik historians have praised and made so much of, was a struggle waged within the ruling classes, a struggle waged for the most part within the ranks of the landowner class, a struggle waged exclusively over the extent and the forms of the proposed concessions. The liberals, like the feudal landowners, upheld the property rights and rule of the landowners, and indignantly denounced all revolutionary ideas about abolishing those property rights, about completely overthrowing that rule,

Such revolutionary ideas could not but ferment in the minds of the serf peasants. The peasant masses, however, were so crushed and stupefied by centuries of slavery that at the time of the Reform they were incapable of anything more than scattered, isolated rebellions, or rather “riots”, devoid of any political purpose. Nevertheless, even then there were revolutionaries in Russia who took the side of the peasantry, who saw how limited, how poverty-stricken was the over-advertised “Peasant Reform”, and who recognised its true feudal nature. These revolutionaries of whom there were extremely few at that time were headed by N.G. Chernyshevsky.

February 19, 1861, heralded the birth of the new, bourgeois, Russia which had been growing out of the era of serfdom. The liberals of the 1860s, on the one hand, and Chernyshevsky, on the other, were the representatives of two historical tendencies, of two historical forces which to this day have been determining the issue of the struggle   for the new Russia. That is why on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of February 19, it is necessary for the class-conscious proletariat to form as clear an idea as possible of the substance and interrelation of these two tendencies.

The liberals wanted to “emancipate” Russia “from, above”, taking care not to destroy either the monarchy of the tsars, or the property rights and the rule of the landowners, prevailing upon them only to make “concessions” to the spirit of the times. The liberals were, and still are, the ideologists of the bourgeoisie, which cannot reconcile itself to serfdom, but is afraid of revolution, is afraid of the mass movement which would be capable of overthrowing the monarchy and abolishing the rule of the landowners. That is why the liberals confine themselves to a “struggle for reforms”, a “struggle for rights”, that is to say, a struggle for a division of power between the feudal landowners and the bourgeoisie. As long as that is the relation of forces, there can be no “reforms” save those carried out by the feudal landowners, and no “rights” save those limited by the tyranny of the feudal landowners.

Chernyshevsky was a utopian socialist, who dreamed of a transition to socialism through the old, semi-feudal peasant village commune.[2] He did not see, nor could he see in the sixties of the past century, that only the development of capitalism and of the proletariat could create the material conditions and the social force for the achievement of socialism. But Chernyshevsky was not only a utopian socialist; he was also a revolutionary democrat, he approached all the political events of his times in a revolutionary spirit and was able to exercise a revolutionary influence by advocating, in spite of all the barriers and obstacles placed in his way by the censorship, the idea of a peasant revolution, the idea of the struggle of the masses for the overthrow of all the old authorities. In speaking of the “Peasant Reform” of 1861, which the liberals at first tried to whitewash and subsequently even glorified, he described it as vile, for he clearly saw its feudal nature, he clearly saw that the liberal emancipators were robbing the peasants of their last shirt. Chernyshevsky spoke of the liberals of the sixties as “windbags, braggarts and fools”,[3] for he clearly saw their   dread of revolution, their spinelessness and their servility before the powers that be.

These two historical tendencies have continued developing in the course of the half-century that has elapsed since February 19, 1861, diverging ever more clearly, definitely and decisively. The forces of the liberal-monarchist bourgeoisie, who preached that “educational” activity was all that was needed, and who fought shy of the revolutionary underground, grew stronger. On the other hand, the forces of democracy and socialism also became stronger, at first merging into one in utopian ideology and in the intellectualist struggles of the Narodnaya Volya and the revolutionary Narodniks. However, since the early nineties, with the transition from the revolutionary struggle of terrorists and individual propagandists to the struggle of the revolutionary classes themselves, these forces diverged.

The decade preceding the Revolution—from 1895 to 1904—was marked by open action of the proletarian masses and by their steady growth, by the growth of the strike struggle, of Social-Democratic working-class propaganda and organisation, and of the Social-Democratic Labour Party. Following the lead of the socialist vanguard of the proletariat, the revolutionary-democratic peasantry has also embarked upon mass struggle, particularly since 1902.

The two tendencies, which in 1861 had just emerged and had begun to appear in literature in bare outline, developed and grew in the Revolution of 1905, and found reflection in the movement of the masses and the struggle carried on by political parties in the most varied fields of activity, in the press, at mass meetings, in unions, in strikes, in uprisings, and in the State Dumas.

The liberal-monarchist bourgeoisie established the Cadet and Octobrist parties that at first (until the summer of 1905) worked together in one liberal Zemstvo movement, and subsequently split into two separate parties fiercely competing with each other (and still doing so), the one putting forward primarily its liberal, the other primarily its monarchist, “face”—but always agreeing on the most essential issues; they both denounce the revolutionaries, disparage the December uprising, and honour as their flag the “constitutional” fig-leaf of absolutism. Both parties   have professed and still profess “strictly constitutional” principles, that is to say, they confine themselves to the limited field of activity which the Black-Hundred tsar and the feudal landowners could concede without giving up power, without relinquishing their autocratic rule, without sacrificing a single kopek of revenues, “sanctified” by ages of slave-holding, or parting with the least of their “justly acquired” privileges.

The democratic and the socialist trends separated from the liberal trend, and drew a line of demarcation between themselves. The proletariat organised and acted independently of the peasantry, rallying around its own, working-class, Social-Democratic, party. The organisation of the peasantry in the revolution was incomparably weaker, its actions were infinitely more scattered and feeble, the level of its class-consciousness was much lower, and monarchist illusions (as well as constitutional illusions, which are closely connected with them) often paralysed its energy, made it dependent upon the liberals, and sometimes upon the Black Hundreds and gave rise to empty day-dreams about “God-given land” which prevented it from launching an assault upon the landowning nobility with the object of completely abolishing that class. By and large, the peasantry taken as a mass, nevertheless fought the landowners, acted in a revolutionary spirit, and in all the Dumas—even in the Third Duma which was elected on the basis of representation specifically favouring the feudal landowners—they created Trudovik groups that represented a genuinely democratic movement despite their frequent vacillations. In the mass movement of 1905–07, the Cadets and Trudoviks represented and politically formulated the position and trends of the liberal-monarchist and the revolutionary-democratic bourgeoisie respectively.

The year 1861 begot the year 1905. The feudal character of the first “great” bourgeois reform impeded the course of development, condemned the peasants to a thousand still worse and more bitter torments, but it did not change the course of development, did not avert the bourgeois revolution of 1905. The Reform of 1861 delayed the issue by opening a valve, as it were, by permitting some growth of capitalism; but it did not prevent the inevitable issue, which   in 1905 was fought out in an incomparably wider field, in the onslaught of the masses upon the tsar’s autocracy and the feudal landowners. The Reform, which the feudal land owners granted at a time when the oppressed masses were completely undeveloped, begot the revolution by the time the revolutionary elements among those masses had reached maturity.

The Third State Duma and Stolypin’s agrarian policy represent the second bourgeois reform carried out by the feudal landowners. February 19, 1861, was the first step taken in the transformation of the purely feudal autocracy into a bourgeois monarchy; the period of 1908–10 represents the second step, an even more serious one, along the same road. Nearly four and a half years have elapsed since the promulgation of the decree of November 9, 1900; more than three and a half years have elapsed since June 3, 1907[4]; yet today the Cadet bourgeoisie, and to a large extent the Octobrist bourgeoisie, are becoming convinced that the “Constitution” of June 3 and the agrarian policy of June 3 have proved “unsuccessful”. “The most Right among the Cadets”, as Mr. Maklakov, that semi-Octobrist, has been justly dubbed, was fully justified in declaring in the State Duma on February 25, on behalf both of the Cadets and of the Octobrists, that “today it is the pivotal elements of the country who are dissatisfied, those who are most anxious for durable peace, who dread a new rise of the tide of revolution”. There is one common slogan: “It is the general opinion,” Mr. Maklakov went on to say, “that if we continue on the road along which they are taking us they will lead us to a second revolution

The common slogan of the Cadet and the Octobrist bourgeoisie in the spring of 1911 confirms that the appraisal of the state of affairs given by our Party in the resolution adopted at its conference in December 1908 was correct. “The principal factors of economic and political life,” that resolution stated, “which gave rise to the Revolution of 1905 continue to operate, and, the economic and political situation being what it is, a new revolutionary crisis is inevitably maturing.”

Menshikov, the paid hack of the tsarist Black-Hundred government, recently declared in Novoye Vremya that the   Reform of February 19 “was a miserable failure”, because “the year 1861 failed to prevent 1905”. Now the hired lawyers and parliamentarians of the liberal bourgeoisie declare that the “reforms” of November 9, 1906, and of June 3, 1907, are a failure because these “reforms” lead to a second revolution.

The two statements, as well as the entire history of the liberal and revolutionary movements in the period 1861–1905, provide extremely interesting material for an elucidation of the very important question of the relation between reform and revolution and the role of reformists and revolutionaries in the social struggle.

The opponents of revolution, some of them with hatred and a gnashing of teeth, others in a spirit of dejection and despondency, admit that the “reforms” of 1861 and of 1907–10 have failed in their purpose, because they do not prevent revolution. Social-Democrats, the representatives of the only consistently revolutionary class of our times, reply: revolutionaries have played an immense historical role in the social struggle and in all social crises even when the immediate result of those crises has been half-hearted reforms. Revolutionaries are the leaders of those forces of society that effect all change; reforms are the by-product of the revolutionary struggle.

The revolutionaries of 1861 remained isolated and, on the face of it, suffered complete defeat. Actually, they were the great figures of the day, and the further that day recedes, the more clearly do we see their greatness and the more obvious is the insignificance and paltriness of the liberal reformists of those days.

The revolutionary class of 1905–07, the socialist proletariat, on the face of it, also suffered complete defeat. Both the liberal monarchists and the liquidators among the pseudo-Marxists have been shouting from the house-tops that the proletariat went “too far” and resorted to “excesses”, that it succumbed to the attraction of “the spontaneous class struggle”, that it let itself be seduced by the pernicious idea of the “hegemony of the proletariat”, and so on, and so forth. Actually, the “sin” of the proletariat was that it did not go far enough, but that “sin” is accounted for by the state of its forces at that time and is being atoned for by unremitting   activity, even in times of blackest reaction, on the part of revolutionary Social-Democrats, by their steadfast struggle against all manifestations of reformism and opportunism. Actually, everything that has been won from the enemies, and everything that is enduring in these gains, has been won and is maintained only to the extent that the revolutionary struggle is strong and alive in all spheres of proletarian activity. Actually, the proletariat alone has championed consistent democracy to the end, exposing all the instability of the liberals, freeing the peasantry from their influence, and rising with heroic courage in insurrection.

No one is in a position to foretell to what extent really democratic changes will be effected in Russia in the era of her bourgeois revolutions, but there can be no shadow of doubt that only the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat will determine the extent and the success of the changes. Between feudal “reforms” in the bourgeois spirit and the democratic revolution led by the proletariat there can only be the vacillations of liberalism and opportunist reformism—impotent, spineless, and devoid of ideals.

When we look at the history of the last half-century in Russia, when we cast a glance at 1861 and 1905, we can only repeat the words of our Party resolution with even greater conviction: “As before, the aim of our struggle is to overthrow tsarism and bring about the conquest of power by the proletariat relying on the revolutionary sections of the peasantry and accomplishing the bourgeois-democratic revolution by means of the convening of a popular constituent assembly and the establishment of a democratic republic”.


[1] Vestnik Yevropy (European Messenger)—a monthly historico-political and literary magazine, of bourgeois-liberal trend, published in St. Petersburg from 1866 to 1918. The magazine printed articles directed against the revolutionary Marxists. Until 1908 its editor and publisher was M. M. Stasyulevich.

[2] The village (land) commune (Russ. obshchina or mir)—the communal form of peasant use of the land characterised by compulsory crop rotation and undivided woods and pastures. Its principal features were collective liability (the compulsory collective responsibility of the peasants for timely and full payments, and the fulfilment of all kinds of services to the state and the landlords) and the periodical redistribution of the land, with no right to refuse the allotment given. The sale of the allotment was also forbidden.

The landlords and the tsarist government used the village commune to intensify feudal oppression and to squeeze land redemption payments and taxes out of the people.

[3] These are the words of Volgin, the hero of N.G. Chernyshevsky’s novel Prologue.

[4] This refers to the government coup of June 3 (16), 1907, reactionary coup, whereby the Second Duma was dissolved and the law on Duma elections changed. The new law greatly increased land lord and commercial-industrial bourgeois representation, and greatly reduced the already small representation of peasants and workers. A large proportion of the population of Asiatic Russia was denied electoral rights, and the representation from Poland and the Caucasus was reduced by half. The composition of the 1907 Third Duma was, therefore, representative of the Black Hundreds and Cadets.

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