V. I. Lenin

Speech at a Joint Session of the All-Russia Central Executive Committee, The Moscow Soviet and All-Russia Trade Union Congress January 17, 1919[1]

Delivered: 17 January, 1919
First Published: Brief report published in Izvestia No. 12, January 18, 1919; First published in full in 1929; Published according to the verbatim report
Source: Lenin’s Collected Works, 4th English Edition, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1972 Volume 28, pages 391-404
Translated: Clemens Dutt; Edited by Robert Daglish
Transcription/HTML Markup: David Walters & Robert Cymbala
Online Version: V. I. Lenin Internet Archive May, 2002

(Stormy ovation.) Comrades, allow me to begin by briefly mentioning the chief facts relating to our food policy. I think these brief remarks will be useful in enabling us to form a correct judgement of the significance of the resolution we are recommending today for adoption by the All-Russia Central Executive Committee. They should also enable us to form an opinion of our whole food policy in general, and of the role which now, when a difficult change is coming, falls to the organised proletariat —that vanguard and chief buttress of Soviet Russia and the socialist revolution.

Our food policy has been marked by three major acts, which, taken chronologically, are as follows: first—the decision to form Poor Peasants’ Committees, a step which lies at the very basis of our food policy and which, moreover, was a tremendously important turning-point in the whole course of development and structure of our revolution. By taking this step we crossed the boundary dividing the bourgeois from the socialist revolution. By themselves, the victory of the working class in the cities and the transfer of all factories to the proletarian state would not have been enough to create and consolidate the foundation of a socialist system, if we had not also created for ourselves not a general peasant, but a really proletarian buttress in the countryside. In October, we had to confine ourselves to uniting the proletariat and the peasants in general, as a whole. And thanks to this alliance we were able rapidly to destroy the landlord system and sweep it off the face of the earth. But it was only when we proceeded to organise the poor peasants, the peasant proletariat and semi-proletariat, that a durable alliance could be formed between the mass of the urban proletariat and rural proletariat. Only then could the war against the kulaks and the peasant bourgeoisie be fought in real earnest. This radical step continues to be the keystone of our food policy.

The second step, less important perhaps, was the decree passed with the participation and on the initiative of our representatives, the decree on utilising the co-operative societies. There we resolved that, we must make use of the machinery created by the co-operatives and capitalist society in general, and which, for obvious reasons, was weaker in Russia than in Western Europe. In this respect we were guilty of many sins and many omissions in the towns and big proletarian centres, as well as in the countryside. Here we are up against a lack of understanding and ability, prejudices and traditions which tend to repel us from the co-operatives. It is quite natural that there should be many non-proletarians in the upper ranks of the co-operative movement. We must fight these people, who are capable of swinging over to the bourgeoisie, and the counter-revolutionary elements and their scheming. But at the same time we must preserve this machinery, the co-operative machinery—which is likewise a capitalist heritage—this machinery of distribution among millions of people, without which we cannot build socialism with any success. In this respect the Food Commissariat has outlined a correct policy, but we have not yet put it fully into effect. The proposals we are submitting today to the All-Russia Central Executive Committee on behalf of the Communist group, which insists that the co-operative machinery be utilised, are one more step in the same direction. We must know how to combat the undesirable top officials in the co-operative machinery—we have forces and authority enough for that, for it would be silly to think they can put up any serious resistance. We must know how to combat them, but we must utilise the co-operative machinery without fail so as not to squander our forces, so that this machine may be united, and so that the Communists may devote their energies not only to political, but also to organisational work, and make technical use of the machinery which stands ready for this work—the co-operative machinery.

The third step in our food policy is the formation of workers’ food organisations. 1-lore, a responsible task confronts you, the food workers. Our path is the right path for us to follow, and we must see to it that it is followed by all the Commissariats. It is a measure of general social and class importance as well as of importance for food supplies. To make the socialist revolution lasting, a new class must run the country. We know that prior to 1861[2] it was the feudal landowners who were the power that governed Russia. We know that since then, generally speaking, the power that governed was the bourgeoisie, those from the wealthy. The permanence of the socialist revolution will depend on the extent we can elevate the new class, the proletariat, to the work of government, have Russia governed by the proletariat. We must make this work of government a step towards the universal training of the working people in the art of governing the state, a training not derived from books or newspapers, speeches or pamphlets, but from practice, enabling everyone to try his hand at this work.

That, comrades, is the chief stage in our food policy, which at the same time is indicative of the very character of its structure. Very responsible duties here confront our food supply comrades. It need scarcely be said that there is no more cruel and dreadful calamity than famine, that the people are naturally driven to impatience, anger and indignation by every flop in this sphere, for it is a calamity that cannot be endured. Nor need it be said that the Food Commissariat’s task is a most difficult one. You know, and the comrades from the trade unions know it particularly, how much chaos and disorder there is in running the big factories, in keeping stock of their output. Yet this is a thousand times easier than keeping stock of food which is gathered in by millions of peasants. But we have no alternative. There is a general food shortage in the country. There is not enough to go round.

What do we mean when we say that certain foodstuffs are scarce? It means we could avoid starvation, although living on reduced rations, if we were now to distribute them among the whole population, if every peasant were to turn over all his produce, if everybody were to cut consumption somewhat below the standard of sufficiency—because there is not enough for a full standard all round—if every peasant were to agree to reduce his consumption somewhat below the standard of sufficiency and turn over all the rest to the state, and if we distributed it all properly. But, if we set ourselves this aim, it is obviously impossible to carry it out by ordinary means amidst the present state of economic disruption and with our nation-wide inefficiency—we are only just getting the knack; we had nowhere to get it from before. If there is a shortage of food, it means ... what does it mean? It means that if you were to sanction free trade when there is a shortage of vitally essential foodstuffs, the result would be frantic profiteering and prices would be inflated to what is called monopoly or famine prices, and only a few top people, with incomes considerably above the average, would be able to satisfy their needs at these fantastic prices, while the vast majority of the people would starve. That is what it means when there is a food shortage in the country, when the country is in a state of famine. Ever since the imperialists began to march on Russia, she has been surrounded. They cannot come out openly with their predatory plans; but that does not mean the end of their intervention, as Comrade Kamenev has rightly remarked. We are a besieged country, a besieged fortress. In this besieged fortress want is inevitable. And therefore the Food Commissariat’s job is the most difficult organisational job of all the Commissariats.

Our enemy today, if we take the enemy within, is not so much the capitalist or landowner—this exploiting minority was easy to vanquish, and it has been. It is the profiteer and the bureaucrat. And every peasant is a profiteer by inclination, who has a chance to line his pockets taking advantage of the desperate want and agonising famine in the cities and in some of the villages. And you know very well, especially the comrades from the trade unions, that the urge, the tendency to go in for profiteering occurs in the industrial centres, too, when certain goods are not to be had, or are scarce, and that everybody who manages to lay his hands on them tries to hoard and make a profit out of them. If we were to allow free trade, prices would at once be inflated to fantastic levels, levels beyond the reach of the vast majority of people.

That, comrades, is the situation, and that is why among the less educated people, exhausted as they are and worn out by starvation and suffering, there is a tendency, or an undefined feeling of resentment and anger against the comrades engaged in food supplies. They are all people who cannot think, cannot see further than the end of their noses, and it seems to them that food could be procured somehow. They have heard that there is food in some place or other, that somebody went there and got some—but they are incapable of calculating on a large scale whether there is enough for ten million people, and how much is required for such a number. It seems to them that someone is holding things up, that our food workers are putting obstacles in their way. They do not understand that the food workers are acting like wise and thrifty managers, saying that if you observe the utmost stringency and the utmost organisation, you shall at best, at the very best, be able to maintain a standard that will keep you from starvation, even if it does fall short of sufficiency. This is the position the country is in for we have been cut off from the chief food-supplying centres—Siberia and the Donets region; we have been cut off from fuel and raw material, food for the population and for industry, without which the country is forced to suffer the most desperate agonies.

The food workers are acting like sensible managers. They say we must stick together, which is the only way we can keep going; we must take systematic action against all attempts by individuals acting for themselves only, willing to pay any price to fill their own belly, and who do not give a hang for anything else. We must not think and act individually, each for himself, for that spells ruin. We must combat such tendencies and habits, which have been fostered in all of us, in the millions of working people, by capitalist private enterprise, by the system of working for the market: “I shall sell and make my bit; the more I make the less I shall starve, and the more others will.” That is the accursed legacy of private property, which left the people to starve even when there was enough food in the country, when a measly minority grew rich both on wealth and on poverty, while the people lived in want and perished in the war. That, comrades, is the position with regard to our food policy. That is the economic law which says that when there is a food shortage, frantic profiteering is engendered by every step towards what is called free trade. That is why all talk about free trade, all attempts to encourage it are utterly pernicious and are a retreat, a step back from that socialist constructive work which the Food Commissariat is doing amidst incredible difficulties in a fight against millions of profiteers, whom we have inherited from capitalism with its old petty-bourgeois, private-property maxim: “Every man for himself, and the devil take the hindmost.” If we cannot root out this evil, we shall never build socialism.

Only unity, only the closest alliance, achieved in everyday life, in everyday work, where it is hardest of all to achievein dividing up a crust of bread when bread is short—will allow us really to build socialism. We know that this cannot be accomplished in a single year, that people who have suffered so long from hunger are tremendously impatient and demand that at least from time to time we retreat from this only correct food policy. And we do have to retreat from it now and then; but we shall not desert or depart from our policy as a whole.

That, comrades, was the situation six months ago, when the food crisis reached its climax, when we had no stocks at all, when the Czech victories had robbed us of the greater part of the Volga region. We had to consent to the pood and a half.[3] This measure cost us a big fight, a sharp fight both sides were in a very bad state. The food workers said: “Yes, things are grim, but we must not make them worse. By giving relief to a few for a week, we will be making things worse for the millions.” Others said: “You are demanding ideal organisation from people who are exhausted and starving; you are demanding the impossible; you must allow some relief, even if it spoils the general policy for a while. This measure will bring new courage, and that is the main thing.” That was the plight we were in when we proposed the pood and a half idea. We kept to the general, fundamental, radical line, but when the position became unbearable, we had to retreat from it to afford at least some temporary relief and preserve the people’s courage and morale.

The same thing is happening now, when we are on the border line, when six comparatively easy months are behind us and six hard months are about to begin. To make this clear, let me tell you that during the first half of 1918 the Food Commissariat procured 28,000,000 poods, and during the second half 67,000,000 poods, that is, two and a half times as much. So you can clearly see that the first halfyear is one of particularly dire and acute want, whereas the second, owing to the harvest, offers an opportunity of improvement. Now, in 1919, the success of our food organisations, thanks chiefly to the Poor Peasants’ Committees in the countryside and the workers’ food inspectors in the towns, is immense and has enabled us to procure two and a half times as much grain. But the success of the first year of our work, when a new edifice had to be built and new methods tested, was not and could not have been enough to ensure us supplies for the whole year, although it afforded us a six-month respite. That respite is coming to an end, and another six months are beginning, the most difficult and hardest of all. We must bring all our resources into play to help the workers, to secure them a short respite, to improve their position in every way we can. And it is only natural that the Presidium of the Moscow Soviet and its Chairman, Kamenev, should have been so insistent that we lay down our policy as clearly as possible and make a clearcut division between monopoly and non-monopoly foodstuffs, which would enable us to attain certain results, if only for a time, so that the workers in the towns and the non-agricultural areas might get at least some slight relief and gain new courage and energy. These are particularly necessary just now, when we are on the eve of these difficult six months, but when there are signs that the forces in the imperialist camp and their attacks on us are slacking off.

Comrade Kamenev, it is true, has mentioned not only signs but facts to show that, in spite of the severe trials and reverses we suffered at Perm, the Red Army is being built on a firm foundation, that it can and will win. The coming six months, however, will be very difficult, and from the very outset we must therefore do whatever is necessary and possible to alleviate the situation and lay down a clearcut food policy. That is our most urgent task. There was a conflict over the pood and a half idea among us, the Communists, and it sometimes assumed acute forms. But it has not weakened us. Rather, it has led us to examine our policy in an even more critical and cautious way. There may be mutual recriminations, but we are arriving at a decision which is being adopted rapidly and unanimously, and which, at this difficult juncture, when we are beginning another and trying six months, demands that we once more clarify for ourselves the reason why a situation has arisen which compels us once more to muster all our strength and strain every nerve.

We have had an exception ally hard year, and we are now on the verge of an even harder six months. But every six months since the German revolution and since the beginning of ferment in Britain and France brings us nearer to the victory not only of the Russian revolution, but of the world revolution as well. That is the situation as it now stands. We have decided to present a draft of the fundamental principles of food policy, which we shall request the AllRussia Central Executive Committee to affirm, so that it may be immediately embodied by the food workers in appropriate decrees that will enable us, those in the centre, the workers of the towns and the non-agricultural areas, to multiply our efforts once more. For in our efforts alone lies the pledge that we shall win, that, though we make certain temporary concessions, necessitated by fatigue and famine, we shall uphold the fundamental principles of our communist food policy and preserve them intact until the time comes when the victory of communism will be complete and world-wide. I shall now read, clause by clause, the motion which the Communist group on the All-Russia Central Executive Committee submits for its consideration:

This joint session of the All-Russia Central Executive Committee, the All-Russia Trade Union Congress, the Moscow Soviet, and representatives of factory committees and trade unions of the city of Moscow hereby lays down the following fundamental principles of food policy and instructs the People’s Commissariat of Food to draw up forthwith decrees embodying these principles.

1. The Soviet food policy is confirmed as correct and unassailable, this policy consisting in:

(a) registration and state distribution on the class principle;

(b) monopoly of the principal foodstuffs;

(c) transfer of supply from private hands to state hands.

2. Unless the state monopoly of the chief items of food (bread, sugar, tea and salt) already decreed is strictly enforced, and unless mass procurements of other of the more important foodstuffs (meat, seafish, hemp, sunflower-seed and linseed oil, animal fats, except butter, and potatoes) are made by the state at fixed prices, it will be impossible to ensure a regular supply of food to the population under present conditions. Furthermore, such mass procurements at fixed prices are only a preliminary measure, in preparation for a state monopoly of those foodstuffs, too, which will be the next task of the Food Commissariat to introduce.

The procurement and transportation of all foodstuffs enumerated in this clause, with the exception of potatoes, are forbidden to all but the state food bodies. The right to mass procurement of potatoes at the established fixed prices shall, in addition to state bodies, be granted also to workers’ organisations, trade unions and co-operative societies.

3. As a temporary measure, workers’ organisations and co-operative societies shall be granted the right to procure all foodstuffs other than those enumerated in Clause 2.

4. The local food bodies are hereby compelled to assist the food procuring organisations in the exercise of this right.

From the standpoint of old habits and the old idea of government, the use of the word “compelled” may surprise you. You may perhaps say: “Can things be so bad in the Soviet Republic that people have to be compelled to obey the will of the All-Russia Central Executive Committee?” Yes, we have to compel, and it is better to say so frankly than to hide our heads under our wing and pretend everything is going swimmingly. Just let our comrades, the representatives of the All-Russia Central Executive Committee and the delegates at the All-Russia Trade Union Congress, give good thought to what they say among themselves. Let them give a thought to whether they are properly carrying out everything decreed long ago concerning the proper registration of foodstuffs and the full delivery to the state of those foodstuffs which cannot be left for commodity exchange purposes. When there is no commodity exchange the peasants say: “No, you’ll get nothing from us for your Kerensky money.” If you give a thought to what you say in private among yourselves and bear in mind how many of the orders of the central authorities remain unfulfilled, you must admit it is better to tell the truth and say that our local bodies have to be compelled, firmly and ruthlessly. (Applause.) At this meeting, in which the All-Russia Central Executive Committee, as our supreme body, has come together with the All-Russia Trade Union Congress bodies, which have the most numerous representation—and that just now is the main thing—these most influential comrades must firmly say, and make it known in their localities, that the local bodies must get accustomed to the idea that we have to compel them to carry out the policy of the central authorities consistently. That is very difficult, and it is natural that many millions of people, who are accustomed to looking on the central authorities as robbers, landowners, exploiters, can have no trust in the centre. But this distrust must be overcome. Socialism cannot be built if it is not, for that means building a centralised economic system, an economic system directed from the centre, and that can only be done by the proletariat, which has been trained in this spirit by the factory and by its whole mode of life. Only the proletariat can do this. The fight against parochial tendencies, against the habits of the small property-owner, is a difficult one. We know this cannot be done all at once, but we shall never tire of urging the workers to reiterate this truth and put it into practice, for socialism cannot be built otherwise.

Clause 4 explains further:

The transportation and marketing of these foodstuffs shall be absolutely unrestricted. No pickets, cordons, guards, etc., shall have the right to prevent the unrestricted transportation and sale of the said foodstuffs in bazaars or markets, from carts, etc.

This point is particularly important. Comrade Kamenev has mentioned many things here which, naturally, in the haste of our work, we have not carried out; our Food and other Commissariats have to issue one order on top of another, with the result that our local bodies find it very difficult to get them all straight. We are accused of issuing decrees too hastily; but what are we to do when we have to make haste because of the advance of imperialism, when we are compelled to make haste by the strongest scourge imaginable—the lack of bread and fuel. This being so, we must use every means to explain our tasks, to elucidate particular mistakes, and that is why the clear and precise demarcation now achieved by this struggle is so important. To achieve this on a far larger scale ’we must now make sure that the local bodies do not act as if they are a law to themselves, that they do not dare to plead they remembered yesterday’s decree but forgot today’s. We must make sure they know quite clearly and definitely which foodstuffs are a state monopoly, and which are open to unrestricted transportation and sale—that is everything except what is specifically enumerated in clauses I and 2. Let this be made generally known. Let those who are now about to return home convey it to the localities. Let them do what their official position requires of them. Let them take along with them copies of the decrees that will be drawn up on the subject, so that these may be implicitly obeyed and carried out in the localities, so that the orders of the centre may really be carried out, and the former indecision stopped.

Further, the end of Clause 4 reads:

Note. With respect to eggs and butter, this decision shall apply only to districts where mass procurements of eggs and butter are not made by the Food Commissariat.

Comrades, I am now going to read the remaining clauses of the decree in brief. As I am unable to go into detail, and as there is no need to do so since several other comrades, some of them better qualified than myself, will speak after me, I shall only stress what I consider most important. I shall read only the basic principles which we recommend the All-Russia Central Executive Committee to adopt and instruct the Council of People’s Commissars and all other authorities of the Soviet Republic to embody in decrees and carry out unreservedly and implicitly. (Applause.)

5. With a view to increasing procurements, and to the more efficient performance of individual tasks, the principle of surplus appropriation and procurement shall be extended to non-monopoly foodstuffs, and a bonus system introduced for co-operative and other organisations engaged in procuring both monopoly and non-monopoly produce for the state.

Measures of organisation for introducing fresh forces into the food bodies and for the wider participation of workers:

(a) Workers’ food inspectors shall be widely utilised and their functions extended to include control over the way the December 10 decrees are observed by the food bodies, and over the procurement of non-monopoly foodstuffs;

(b) Worlcers’ inspection shall be introduced at the earliest possible date in all food bodies in the localities and extended to the Food Commissariat departments, with the object of vigorously combating bureaucracy and red tape;

(c) Connections with the workers’ organisations—trade unions and workers’ co-operative societies—shall be strengthened by reinforcing the local bodies with active members of the aforesaid organisations;

(d) A system of workers’ trainees shall be introduced in all central and local bodies and institutions in order to train workers as practical specialists in food affairs capable of filling responsible posts.

6. The co-operative apparatus shall be employed to the full in the work of procurement and distribution. Responsible representatives of the state supply bodies shall be appointed to the co-operative societies to control the activities of the co-operative organisations and co-ordinate them with the government’s food policy.

That, incidentally, is one of the ways of fighting the top people in the co-operatives. But it would be a great mistake and positively fatal to scorn the entire co-operative apparatus, to reject it out of hand or in a contemptuous way, saying: “We shall build ourselves a new one; this is no business of ours, this is something for Communists only.” We must make use of the machinery ready at hand—we cannot build socialism unless we utilise what capitalism has left us. We must utilise everything in the way of cultural values capitalism created against our interests. Therein lies the difficulty of socialism, that it has to be built of materials made by our adversaries; but therein lies the only possibility for socialism. We all know this theoretically, and now that we have got over this year, we have seen in practice that socialism can only be built from what capitalism has created against our interests, and that we must employ all this to build and consolidate socialism.

Clause 7 reads:

7. Supervision to ensure the proper observance of the regulations governing the transportation of foodstuffs and the strict enforcement of the monopolies shall devolve on the workers, aided by armed detachments formed by the Food Commissariat.

All food pickets other than the teams of the Food Commissariat and the Guberriia Food Committees shall be withdrawn immediately. The teams of the Food Commissariat and the Gubernia Food Committees shall be withdrawn as and when the respective bodies of workers’ Inspectors are formed in the localities.

My time is up, comrades, and I shall only point out that here, in these last clauses, we find the main principles underlying our food policy and Soviet policy in general. I have already said that hard times have come, that a more drastic six months has begun, that the respite in food difficulties is over and a most difficult period has commenced. Every time the Soviet government encounters difficulties in the extremely difficult job of building socialism, it knows only one way to overcome them, and that is to turn to the workers, to wider and wider sections of the workers every time. I have already said socialism can be built only when ten and a hundred times more people themselves begin to build the state and the new economic life. Our food workers have, as their reports show, already got to a stage where no less than one-third of the members of the district food committees are workers, chiefly workers from Petrograd, Moscow and Ivanovo—Voznesensk—the flower of our proletarian army. That is good, but it is not enough. What we need is two-thirds, and we must go on working for it. As you know, the advanced sections of the workers have already set about governing the state, building a new life. We know we must reach down deeper and more boldly enlist new sections. They still lack training, they will inevitably make mistakes, but we are not afraid of that. We know that in this way we shall get young trained workers and recompense errors a hundred-fold by securing scores of younger and fresher forces. There is no other source we can draw on. We must move ahead all the time, take our young workers from wherever we can and put them in more and more responsible posts.

The present food crisis is due to the fact that a more difficult six months has begun. It is also due to the state of transport. As I have already said, in the second half of 1918 we procured 67,500,000 poods. But we were unable to get out 20,000,000 of this amount. The latest severe crisis in Petrograd is due to the fact that our stocks are held up on the Volga-Bugulma Railway, and we cannot move them out. The railways are in a desperate state. The rolling stock is in a dreadful state, because no country has suffered so badly as Russia owing to her prevailing backwardness, and because the rail workers are not so well organised. I would ask you, on leaving this meeting, to make the people aware of our need for numerous workers for food organisation and the railways, who would help us with their experience. Give them a job, keep an eye on the novices, and they will do a lot more than the old organisations. Everybody on food and transport work! Let every organisation, no matter which branch it belongs to, review all its forces and ask itself whether it has taken enough men, whether it has done all it should in the way of sending commissars, as we send them for the army. The workers are suffering from lack of food. We must put our best people on the job, appoint them all to responsible military, food or transport posts. Everybody can be of use here, even if he is not an expert. On the railways it is sometimes the aid of a Party comrade that is required, the influence of an ideologically staunch proletarian who has had his schooling and will influence the less proletarian sections of railway employees by control and supervision. Comrades, I once more repeat the slogan: “Everybody on food and transport work!” We must do what we did in the army, where we sent our political commissars and achieved the tasks we set ourselves. I am sure we shall this time, too, in these difficult six months, conquer famine and devastation!


[1] The session was called because of the critica1 food situation. It was held at the Bolshoi Theatre. In his speech, Lenin explained the draft of his theses of food policy which he submitted to the session on behalf of the Bolshevik group in the All-Russia Central Executive Committee. The draft was unanimously approved. The resolution recognised that it was correct to introduce a state monopoly of staple foodstuffs like grain, tea, salt and sugar. The products whose monopolisation was recognised as untimely (meat, seafish, etc.) were to be procured only by the Food Commissariat’s organs at fixed prices. The basic propositions of the resolution were incorporated in the decree On the Procurement of Foostuffs, which was endorsed by the Council of People’s Commissars on January 21, 1919, and published in Izvestia on January 24. These government measures formed part of a whole system of measures known as the policy of war communism.

[2] The year 1861 saw the abolition of serfdom in Russia.

[3] Lenin refers to the decision of the Moscow Soviet of August 24, 1918, and the decision of the Petrograd Soviet of September 5, 1918 which permitted workers of Moscow and Petrograd free carriage of foodstuffs in quantities up to 1 1/2 poods of personal consumption. This measure was necessitated by the difficult food situation and adopted as an exception from the decision of the Council of People’s Commissars on grain monopoly. The Council of People’s Commissars made these decisions effective until October 1, 1918.