Leon Trotsky



The Peasantry and the Agrarian Question

* * *

According to calculations (which, by the way, are far from accurate), Russia’s economic revenue from the extracting and processing industries amounts to between 6 and 7 billion roubles a year, of which some 1.5 billion, that is to say, more than a fifth, is absorbed by the state. This means that Russia is three to four times poorer than the European states. As we have seen, the number of economically active persons represents a very small percentage of the population as a whole, and, furthermore, the productive capacity of these economically active elements is very low. This is true of industry, whose annual product is far from proportional to the number of persons employed; but the productive capacity of agriculture, which absorbs approximately 6 per cent of the country’s labor force and the revenue from which, despite this fact, amounts to only 2.8 billion roubles – that is, less than half the national product – is at an incomparably lower level still.

The conditions of Russia’s agriculture (consisting overwhelmingly of peasant agriculture) were, in their essentials, predetermined by the nature of the so-called “liberation reform” of 1861. Carried out in the interests of the state, this reform was wholly adapted to the selfish interests of the nobility. The muzhik was not only cheated in the distribution of land but, also, was placed under the enslaving yoke of taxation.

The table reproduced below shows the land allotments turned over to the three main categories of the peasantry upon the liquidation of serfdom.

of peasants

No. of men
in 1860

No. of dessyatins

No. of dessyatins
per man

















Assuming that the land allocation received by state-owned peasants (6.7 dessyatins per man) was, under the given economic conditions, sufficient to provide full occupation for the labor power of a peasant family – which roughly corresponds to fact – we are bound to conclude that landlord-owned and independent peasants received approximately 44 million dessyatins short of the required norm. Those areas of land which under serfdom were worked by the peasants for their own needs absorbed only half of their labor power, since for three days of every week they were obliged to work for the landlord. Nevertheless, some 2 per cent of the best land was cut off, in favor of the landlords, from these already inadequate land allocations (speaking very generally, with considerable variations between one part of the country and another). Thus agricultural overpopulation, which formed part of the fundamental condition of serfdom, was further aggravated by the nobility’s appropriation of peasant land.

The half-century which has elapsed since the reform has brought about a considerable reshuffle in land ownership, land to the value of three-quarters of a billion roubles having passed from the hands of the nobility into those of the merchant and peasant bourgeoisie. But the mass of the peasantry has derived no benefit whatever from this fact.

In 1905, the distribution of the land area of the fifty provinces of European Russia was as follows:


Land allotments owned by:

112 million dessyatins


former state serfs



fomer landlord-owned serfs



Privately owned land owned by:



companies and associations
(including 11.4 by peasant associations)



Private owners:
up to 20 dessyatins
(including 2.3 by peasant owners)



Between 20 and 50 dessyatins



More than 50 dessyatins



Crown and independent lands



Including non-forestry and arable land (approx.)



Lands belonging to the church, to monasteries,
municipal institutions, etc.


As we have already seen, the average allotment per male peasant after the land reform was 4.83 dessyatins. Forty-five years later, in 1905, the average area including any newly acquired pieces of land amounts to only 3.1 dessyatins. In other words, the total area of peasant-owned land has been reduced by 36 per cent.

The development of commercial and industrial activities, which absorbed not more than one-third of the annual growth of the peasant population; the emigration movement to peripheral areas which, to some extent, reduced the peasant population in the center; and lastly, the activities of the Peasant Bank, which enabled peasants of medium and higher levels of prosperity to acquire 7.3 million dessyatins of land during the period from 1882 to 1905 – these factors proved incapable even of counterbalancing the effect of the natural population growth and preventing the exacerbation of land penury.

According to approximate calculations, some 5 million adult men in Russia cannot find a proper outlet for their labor power. Only a minority of this total consists of professional vagrants, beggars, etc. The overwhelming majority of these 5 million “superfluous men” belong to the black-earth peasantry. By applying their labor force to the land, which could be worked just as well without them, they lower the productivity of peasant labor by 30 per cent and, being absorbed in the mass of the peasantry as a whole, avoid proletarianization by means of the pauperization of still wider peasant masses.

Theoretically, a possible solution could consist in the intensification of agriculture. But for this the peasants need better education, greater powers of initiative, freedom from tutelage and a stable legal order – conditions which did not and could not exist in autocratic Russia. However, the principal obstacle to the improvement of our agriculture has been, and still remains, the lack of financial means. And this aspect of the crisis in the peasant economy goes back, like landlessness, to the reform of 1861.

The peasants did not receive their inadequate land allocations free of cost. They were obliged to pay a redemption fee to the landlords, with the state acting as intermediary, for the pieces of land on which they had subsisted before, under serfdom, that is, their own pieces of land whose area, moreover, had been further reduced by the reform. The fees were established by government agents working hand in glove with the landowners -- and, instead of 648 million roubles, a figure based on the capitalized profitability of the land, they placed on the shoulders of the peasantry a debt of 867 million roubles. Thus in addition to paying for their own land, the peasants in fact had to pay the landlords an additional 219 million roubles as the price of their liberation from serfdom. To this, as a result of landlessness, were added extortionate land rents and the monstrous work of the Tsarist fiscal organization. For example, direct land tax per dessyatin of allotted land amounts to 1.56 roubles and for privately-owned land to 23 kopecks (0.23 roubles). Hence almost the entire weight of the state budget is borne by the peasantry. Devouring the lion’s share of the peasants’ profits from agriculture, the state gives to the villages virtually nothing in exchange by way of raising their cultural level and developing their productive capacities.

The local agricultural committees set up by the government in 1902 established that from 50 to 100 per cent, and sometimes more, of the net agricultural profit of peasant families is swallowed up by direct and indirect taxation. This leads, on the one hand, to an accumulation of hopeless arrears and, on the other hand, to stagnation and even deterioration of the level of agricultural activity. Both technology and crops over the vast expanse of central Russia today are the same as a thousand years ago. The average crop of wheat from a hectare of land amounts to 26.9 hectoliters in England, 17.0 hectoliters in Germany, and 6.7 hectoliters in Russia. To this should be added that crops on peasant lands are 46 per cent below those on landowners’ lands, and that this difference is the greater, the worse the year’s harvest. Our peasant has long ago forgotten even how to dream of saving a reserve of grain for a rainy day. The new commodity and financial relations on the one hand, and fiscal obligations on the other, compel him to transform all his natural reserves and economic surpluses into ready cash which is immediately swallowed up by the payment of rents and taxes. The feverish race for ready money forces the peasant to do constant violence to his land, depriving it of fertilization and rational husbandry.

Every bad harvest, which is the earth’s vengeance for its own maltreatment, has the effect of an elemental, devastating disaster on the villages which, as we have seen, possess no stock of reserves whatsoever.

But even in so-called “normal” years, the peasant masses cannot emerge from a state of semi-starvation. Here is the peasant budget which ought to be engraved on the golden foreheads of the European bankers, the creditors of Tsarism: every member of a peasant family spends 19.5 roubles per annum on food, 3.8 roubles on lodging, 5.5 roubles on clothing, 1.4 roubles on other material needs and 2.5 roubles on spiritual and intellectual needs! A single skilled American worker spends, directly and indirectly, as much as two Russian families of six members each. Yet to cover this type of expenditure, which no state moralist could call excessive, the peasantry’s income from agriculture is more than a billion roubles short each year. Cottage industries bring in about 200 million roubles’ profit to the villages. If this sum is deducted, peasant agriculture shows an annual deficit of 850 million roubles, which is precisely the sum which the state fiscal organization snatches each year from the hands of the peasantry.

In our description of peasant agriculture we have until now ignored the economic differences between different regions, which, in actual fact, are of the greatest significance and have found powerful expression in the forms of the agrarian movement (see the chapter entitled The Peasant Riots). If we concentrate on the fifty provinces of European Russia, and set aside the northern forest strip, the remainder of the area can, from the viewpoint of peasant agriculture and of economic development in general, be divided into three large regions:

1. The industrial region, including Petersburg province in the north and Moscow province in the south. This northern capitalist area, dominated by Petersburg and Moscow, is characterized by factories (especially textiles), cottage industries, flax cultivation, and commercial agriculture – in particular, market gardening. Like all other industrial regions, this area does not grow sufficient grain for its needs and is obliged to import it from the south.

2. The southeastern region adjoining the Black Sea and the lower reaches of the Volga: the Russian America. This area, in which serfdom was almost non-existent, played the role of a colony in relation to the central part of Russia. So-called “wheat factories,” using modern agricultural machinery and exporting their grain to the industrial region in the north and to foreign countries in the west, sprang up rapidly in the free expanses of the steppe, attracting a large number of immigrants. Parallel with this there took place a transfer of labor power to the processing industries, the flourishing of heavy industry and feverish urban growth. In this area, the differentiation within the peasant community goes extremely deep, the peasant farmer standing at one end of the scale and the agricultural proletarian, in many cases an immigrant from the black-earth provinces, at the other.

3. Between the old industrial north and the new industrial south there lies the broad strip of black earth, the Russian India. Its population, which was relatively dense even under serfdom and was engaged in agriculture in its entirety, lost 24 per cent of its land area as a result of the reform of 1861, the best, essential parts of the peasants’ allotments being turned over to the landowners. Land prices rose rapidly, the landlords engaged in a purely parasitic economy, partly cultivating their lands with the peasants’ stock and partly leasing them to the peasants, who were thus bound inescapably to slavish rent conditions. Hundreds of thousands of peasants are leaving this region for the industrial area in the north and for the south, where they bring down the level of labor conditions. In the black-earth strip there is neither large-scale industry nor capitalist agriculture. Here, the capitalist farmer cannot compete with the pauper tenant-farmer, and the steam plow is defeated in the struggle with the physiological resilience of the muzhik, who, having paid as rent not only the entire profit on his “capital” but also a large part of his wages, exists on a diet of flour mixed with wood shavings or ground tree-bark. In some places the poverty of the peasants is assuming such proportions that even the presence of bedbugs or cockroaches in an izba is regarded as an eloquent sign of relative wealth. It is an actual fact that the rural doctor Shingarev, today a liberal deputy to the Duma, has found that in the homes of landless peasants investigated by him in some areas of Voronezh province no bedbugs are encountered at all, whereas among other categories of the village population the number of bedbugs encountered is largely proportional to the family’s “wealth.” The cockroach, it appears, is less of an aristocrat, but it, too, requires a higher standard of comfort than the Voronezh pauper: in 9.3 per cent of peasant families, cockroaches are not found on account of the prevailing starvation and cold.

Under such conditions it is futile to speak of any development of agricultural technology. The peasants’ stock, including beasts of labor, is sold to pay the rents and taxes, or else is eaten. But where there is no development of the productive forces, there, too, no social differentiation can take place. Equality of pauperism reigns within the black-earth community. Compared with the north and south, the stratification of the peasantry is highly superficial. Above the embryonic class differences stands the acute estate antagonism between the pauperized peasantry and the parasitic nobility.

The three areas described do not, of course, correspond exactly to the geographical limits of the regions concerned. The unity of the state and the absence of internal customs barriers exclude any possibility of formation of separate economic organisms. During the 1880s the semi-serfdom relations in agriculture which were dominant in the twelve provinces of the central black-earth area prevailed, also, in five provinces outside the black-earth strip. On the other hand, capitalist agricultural relations predominated in nine black-earth provinces as well as in ten non-black-earth provinces; and, lastly, in seven provinces the two systems were roughly equivalent.

The struggle between tenant farming and capitalist agriculture – a struggle which, though it involves no shedding of blood, claims countless victims – has been continuing, and still continues without cease; capitalist agriculture is far from being in a position to boast of victory. The peasant, caught in the mousetrap of his land allotment and deprived of the means of earning money on the side, is obliged, as we have seen, to rent the landlord’s land at any price. He not only relinquishes all profit, not only cuts down his own consumption to the lowest minimum, but also sells his own agricultural stock, thus lowering still further the already very low technological level of the economy. Large capital is powerless in the face of these fatal “advantages” of small-scale farming: the landlord will have nothing to do with rational methods of cultivation, and cuts his land up into minute portions so as to let it out to peasants. By raising land rents and prices, the surplus population of the central part of the country, at the same time, lowers wages throughout the country as a whole. In so doing it renders unprofitable the introduction of machinery and modern techniques, not only in agriculture but also in other branches of production. During the last decade of the nineteenth century, profound economic decay had already extended to a considerable part of the southern region, where, parallel with the growth of land rents, there was a progressive reduction in the number of the peasants’ beasts of labor. The crisis in agriculture and the progressive pauperization of the peasantry is narrowing still further the basis of Russian industrial capitalism, which is obliged to work principally for the domestic market. Inasmuch as heavy industry is fed by state orders, the progressive impoverishment of the muzhik has become a terrible menace to heavy industry because it undermines the very foundations of the state budget.

These conditions are sufficient in themselves to explain why the agrarian question has become the axis of Russia’s political life. All the country’s oppositional and revolutionary parties have already received cruel wounds from the sharp edges of the agrarian problem: this was true in December 1905, in the first Duma, and the second Duma. Today the third Duma is scurrying around the agrarian question like a squirrel in a wheel. Tsarism, too, runs the risk of smashing its criminal head against the same problem.

The government of the nobility and the bureaucracy, even with the best intentions, is powerless when it comes to carrying out a reform in an area where palliatives have long since lost all meaning. The 6 or 7 million dessyatins of good land which are today at the government’s disposal are utterly inadequate, given the presence in the country of 5 million surplus male workers. But even if the state were to sell this land to the peasants, it would have to do so at prices which it would have to pay itself to the landowners: which means that even if these millions of dessyatins were to pass rapidly and entirely into peasant hands, every muzhik rouble, instead of finding productive use in the economy, would drop into the bottomless pocket of the nobility and the government.

The peasantry cannot make the leap from poverty and hunger into the paradise of intensive and rational agriculture; to make such a transition possible at all, the peasantry must immediately, under the existing conditions of its economy, receive adequate land to which to apply its labor power. The transfer of all large and medium lands into the hands of the peasants is the first and essential prerequisite of any profound agrarian reform. Compared with the tens of millions of dessyatins which, in the hands of the landowners, serve only as a means of extorting usurers’ rents from the peasants, the 1,840 pieces of land, extending over 7 million dessyatins, where relatively rational large-scale agriculture is being conducted, are hardly significant. Yet the sale of this privately owned land to the muzhiks would change the situation only very little: what the muzhik now pays as rent, he would then have to pay in the form of purchase price. There remains confiscation.

But it is not difficult to show that even confiscation of large lands would not, by itself, save the peasantry. The overall profit from agriculture amounts to 2.8 billion roubles, of which 2.3 billion are derived from peasants and agricultural laborers and approximately 450 million from the landowners. We have already mentioned that the peasantry’s annual deficit amounts to 850 million roubles. It follows that the income which would be derived from the confiscation of the landowners’ lands would not even cover that deficit.

Those who oppose the expropriation of landowners’ lands have often based their arguments on calculations of this kind. But they ignore the main aspect of the problem: the real significance of expropriation would be that a free farming economy at a high technological level, which would multiply the overall income from the land, could be developed on the estates torn from the idle hands which now possess them. But such American-type farming is only conceivable in Russia if Tsarist absolutism with its fiscal demands, its bureaucratic tutelage, its all-devouring militarism, its debts to the European stock exchanges, were totally liquidated. The complete formula for the agrarian problem is as follows: expropriation of the nobility, liquidation of Tsarism, democracy.

That is the only way in which our agriculture can be shifted from its present stagnation, increasing its productive forces and at the same time raising its demand for industrial products. Industry would receive a mighty impulse for further development and would absorb a considerable proportion of the surplus rural population.

None of this, of course, can provide a final solution to the agrarian problem: no solution can be found under capitalism. But, in any case, the revolutionary liquidation of the autocracy and feudalism must precede the solution which is to come. The agrarian problem in Russia is a heavy burden to capitalism: it is an aid to the revolutionary party and at the same time its greatest challenge: it is the stumbling block for liberalism, and a memento mori for counter-revolution.

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Last updated on: 13.11.2006