V. I.   Lenin

The Last Valve

Published: Nevskaya Zvezda No. 20, August 5, 1912. Signed: R. S.. Published according to the text in Nevskaya Zvezda.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, [1975], Moscow, Volume 18, pages 248-253.
Translated: Stepan Apresyan
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.README

We concluded our previous article on the agrarian question in Russia today (see Nevskaya Zvezda No. 15) as follows:

The real similarity between the Stolypin and the Narodnik agrarian programmes lies in the fact that both advocate a radical break-up of the old, medieval system of landownership. And that is very good. That system deserves no better than to be broken up. The most reactionary of all are those Cadets of Rech and Russkiye Vedomosti who reproach Stolypin for causing a break-up, instead of proving the need for a still more consistent and resolute break-up. We shall see in a following article that the Stolypin type of break-up cannot do away with bondage and labour service, while the Narodnik type can.

For the time being we shall note that the only entirely real result of the Stolypin break-up is a famine among 30 million people. And it remains to be seen whether the Stolypin break-up may not teach the Russian people how they should carry out a more thorough break-up. It is no doubt teaching that. But will it succeed in it? Time will tell.”[1]

And so, the question now confronting us is: why is it that the Stolypin break-up of medieval landownership cannot, while the peasant-Trudovik or Narodnik break-up can, do away with bondage and labour service?

In starting to analyse this question, we shall note first of all that one of the fundamental defects of the most wide spread arguments concerning this matter—arguments that are liberal, Narodnik and partly revisionist (P. Maslov)—is   the abstract presentation of the question, ignoring the concrete historical “replacement’s which is actually coming about. The replacement coming about in Russia has long since occurred in the advanced countries of the West: it is the replacement of a feudal by a capitalist economy.

It is, and can only be, a question of the forms, conditions, rapidity and circumstances of this replacement; all other considerations, which are not infrequently put in the forefront, are no more than an unwitting beating about the bush, the “bush” being precisely this replacement.

The predominant feudal form of modern Russian agriculture is bondage and labour service. The preservation of natural economy to a comparatively considerable degree, the existence of the small cultivator who cannot make both ends meet and farms on a tiny patch of poor land, using old, wretchedly inadequate implements and production methods, and the economic dependence of this small cultivator on the owner of the neighbouring latifundium, who exploits him not only as a wage-labourer (which marks the beginning of capitalism), but as a small cultivator (which is a continuation of the corvée system)—these are the conditions engendering bondage and labour service, or rather, characterising both the one and the other.

For the 30,000 big landlords in European Russia there are 10,000,000 households of the peasant poor. The average result is roughly the following: one landlord owning over 2,000 dessiatines is surrounded by some 300 peasant house holds, each owning approximately 7 dessiatines of poor and exhausted land and equipped with implements that are incredibly outdated and primitive (from the European point of view, to say nothing of the American).

Some of the well-to-do peasants “get on in the world”, i.e., become petty bourgeois using wage-labour to cultivate their land. The landlords, many of whom yesterday were serf-owning lords or are their sons, resort to the same kind of labour on a certain part of their land and for certain farming operations.

But besides these capitalist relations, and pushing them into the background in all the purely Russian gubernias of European Russia, there is the cultivation of landlord land by peasants using their own implements and livestock, that   is to say, labour service, a continuation of the former corvée, and there is also the “utilisation” of the desperate want of the small cultivator (precisely as a cultivator, as a small proprietor) for “service” on the neighbouring landed estate, that is to say, bondage. Money loans in exchange for work, grain loans, winter hire, land lease, permission to use the road, watering-place, meadows, pastures and woods, the lending of implements and livestock, and so on and so forth, are all infinitely varied forms of modern bondage.

Things are sometimes pushed to the length of obliging the peasant to fertilise the landlord’s fields with manure from his own farm, while the “housewife” is obliged to provide eggs—and this not in the eighteenth, but in the twentieth century A.D.!

One has only to pose clearly and precisely the problem of these survivals of medievalism and feudalism in modern Russian agriculture to appreciate the significance of the Stolypin “reform”. This “reform”, of course, gave dying serfdom a new lease of life, just as the notorious, so-called “peasant” (in reality landlord), Reform of 1861, extolled by the liberals and Narodniks, gave a new lease of life to the corvée system, perpetuating it in a different guise right up to 1905.

The “new lease of life” given by Stolypin to the old order and old feudal agriculture lies in the fact that another valve was opened, the last that could still be opened without expropriating all the landed estates. That valve was opened to let off some of the steam—in the sense that some of the thoroughly impoverished peasants acquired a title to their allotments as personal property and sold them, thus being converted from proletarians with an allotment into proletarians pure and simple, and that, furthermore, some of the well-to-do peasants, having acquired their allotments, and in some cases having settled on otrubs, built up even more solid capitalist farms than before.

Lastly, the valve was opened and some of the steam let off in the sense that in some areas a particularly intolerable type of strip holding was abolished and the mobilisation of peasant land required under capitalism was made easier.

But did this new lease of life decrease or increase the over all number of contradictions in the countryside? Did it   decrease or increase the tyranny of the feudal latifundia, or the total amount of “steam”? The answer to these questions can only be the second alternative.

The famine among 30 million peasants is factual proof that the only answer which can be given at present is the second alternative. It is a famine among small proprietors. It presents a picture of the crisis of the same old poverty-ridden peasant farming, shackled by bondage and crushed by the feudal latifundia. There are no such famines, nor can there be, in the case of the big non-feudal estates, of the capitalist latifundia, in Europe.

The plight of the mass of the peasantry, apart from the proletarians who have completely freed themselves from the land (who “acquired” their land in order to sell it) and a negligible minority of well-to-do peasants, is the same as before or has even become worse. No acquiring of holdings as personal property, no measures against strip holdings, can make the mass of the impoverished peasants—settled on poor, exhausted land and possessing only antiquated, thoroughly worn-out implements and starved draught animals and cattle—to any extent cultured, to any extent masters of their farms.

Around a landlord (of the Markov or Purishkevich type) owning 2,000 dessiatines of land, the owners of tiny seven dessiatine plots will inevitably remain paupers in bondage, however much they may be resettled, however much they may be freed from the village commune, however much their paupers’ plots may be “acquired” as their personal property.

The Stolypin reform cannot do away with the bondage and labour service of the mass of the peasants or with famines among them. Decades upon decades of similar periodical famines will be needed before the bulk of the present-day households dies out painfully and the Stolypin reform “succeeds”, i.e., before the established bourgeois system of the general European type is introduced in our countryside. At present, however, after a six-year trial of the Stolypin “reform” and six years of “brilliant” progress in the number of those who have “acquired” their land, etc., there cannot be the slightest doubt that the reform has not removed the crisis and cannot remove it.

Both at the present time and for the immediate future, it is beyond all question that Russia confronts us with the old crisis of an economy which is feudal as regards a number of survivals, the old crisis of pauperised small farming held in bondage by the latifundia of the Markov or Purishkevich type.

And this crisis, so graphically documented by the famine of 30 million peasants, confronts us despite Stolypin having opened the last valve that the Markovs and Purishkeviches have. They (and the Council of the United Nobility along with them) could have thought up nothing else,[2] nor can anything else be thought up to enable the Purishkeviches to retain land and power, than the pursuit of a bourgeois policy by these same Purishkeviches.

This is actually what the contradictions of the modern Russian countryside amount to: the pursuit of a bourgeois agrarian policy by the former serf-owners, who fully retain their land and their power. In the agrarian sphere, this is also “a step towards transformation into a bourgeois monarchy”.[3]

This step towards the new has been taken by the old, which has retained its omnipotence, its land, its general appearance and conditions. This is the last step that the old can still take. It is the last valve. There are not, and cannot be, any other valves at the disposal of the Purishkeviches, who are in command of a bourgeois country.

And precisely because this step towards the new has been taken by the old, which has retained its omnipotence, it could not produce, and will not produce, any lasting result. On the contrary, it is leading—as shown clearly by all the symptoms of the period we are passing through—to the growth of the old crisis at a different and higher stage of Russia’s capitalist development.

The old crisis is growing in a new way, in a new situation, at a time when the class relations have become much more definite; but it is growing, and its social and economic (and not merely economic) nature remains essentially unchanged.

A negligible number of good, otrub farms of the peasant bourgeoisie, while the number of proletarians bound to allotments is declining, while the Purishkeviches retain their omnipotence, while the vast mass of the pauperised and starving middle peasants are in bondage, and while the number of proletarians not bound to allotments is increasing—such is the picture of the Russian countryside today.

Does it still have to be demonstrated that the Stolypin agrarian programme cannot, while the Narodnik (in the historical and class sense of the term) programme can, abolish bondage and labour service? Surely the present situation in the countryside must suggest that given full freedom of mobilisation of the land, good otrub farms would inevitably put an end at once to all medieval famines, to all bondage and labour service, if such farms were set up by the free choice of the peasants on all the seventy million dessiatines of landed estates which for the time being are outside the “land distribution system”? And will not the irony of history compel us to say that Stolypin’s land surveyors have come in handy for a Trudovik Russia?


[1] See pp. 148–49 of this volume.—Ed.

[2] It goes without saying that the phrase “thought up” should be taken with a grain of salt: the imagination of the class in command was limited and determined by the entire course of the capitalist development of Russia and the world as a whole. With the given alignment of the classes in a Russia developing along capitalist lines, the Council of the United Nobility could not have acted otherwise if it wanted to retain its power. —Lenin

[3] See present edition, Vol. 15, p. 347.—Ed.

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