The subsoil of the revolution was the agrarian problem. In the antique land system, born directly out of serfdom, in the traditional power of the landlord, the close ties between landlord, local administration and caste zemstvo, lay the roots of the most barbarous features of Russian life which had their crown in the Rasputin monarchy. The muzhik, age-old support of orientalism, proved also its first victim.
In the first weeks after the February revolution, the village remained almost inert. Those of the most active age were at the front. The elderly generation left at home too well remembered how revolutions end in punitive expeditions. The village was silent, and therefore the city was silent about the village. But the spectre of a peasant war hung over the nests of the landlords from the first March days. Out of the most aristocratic – that is backward and reactionary – provinces a cry for help was heard almost before the real danger appeared. The liberals sensitively reflected the fright of the landlords. The Compromisers reflected the mood of the liberals. “It would be dangerous,” rationalises the left radical, Sukhanov, just after the revolution, “ to force the agrarian problem in the next few weeks; and moreover there is not the slightest need of it.” As we know, Sukhanov likewise thought it would be dangerous to force the question of peace, or of the eight-hour day. To hide from difficulties is simpler. Moreover, the landlords were afraid a shake-up of land relations would reflect itself harmfully upon the spring sowing and the provisioning of the cities. The Executive Committee sent telegrams to the localities recommending that they should not “become absorbed in the agrarian question to the neglect of food supplies to the cities.”
In many regions the landlords, frightened by the revolution, abstained from the spring sowing. With a heavy food crisis throughout the country, those empty fields themselves seemed to cry for a new owner. The peasantry stirred dimly. Hoping little from the new power, the landlords hastened to dispose of their properties. The kulaks began zealously to buy up these estates, figuring that as peasants they would escape forcible expropriation. Many of these land sales were notoriously fictitious. It was assumed that private holdings below a certain norm would be spared; in view of this, the landlords artificially divided their property into small allotments, creating dummy owners. Not infrequently the lands were transferred to foreigners citizens of the allied or neutral countries. Kulak speculation and landlord trickery threatened to leave nothing of the public land by the time the Constituent Assembly was convoked.
The villages saw these manoeuvres. Hence their demand: stop all land sales by decree. Peasant delegates kept pouring into the cities to the new authorities seeking land and justice. It happened to the ministers more than once, after their exalted debates and ovations, to run into the grey figures of peasant deputies at the doorway. Sukhanov tells how one of these delegates with tears in his eyes beseeched the citizen minister to promulgate a law protecting the land from being sold off. He was impatiently interrupted by Kerensky excited and pale: “I said it would be done, and that means it will be ... and you needn’t look at me with those suspicious eyes.” Sukhanov, who was present at this scene, adds: “I report this verbatim. And Kerensky was right: the muzhik did look with suspicious eyes at the eminent people’s minister and leader.” In this short dialogue between a peasant who is still asking but no longer trusting, and the radical minister gesturing away the peasant’s distrust, is contained the inevitability of the February régime’s collapse.
The act creating land committees as organs of preparation for agrarian reform was published by the first Minister of Agriculture, the Kadet Shingarev. The main land committee, presided over by the liberal bureaucratic professor, Postnikov, consisted chiefly of Narodniks who feared more than anything else to appear less moderate than their president. Local land committees were established in the, provinces, counties and rural districts. Whereas the Soviets, which took hold rather slowly in the villages, were considered private organisations, these committees had a governmental character. But the more indefinite their functions were according to the act, the harder slit was for them to resist the pressure of the peasants. The lower a committee stood in the general hierarchy – the nearer, that is, to the land – the sooner it became an instrument of the peasant movement.
Toward the end of March there began to flow into the capital the first alarming tidings of the peasants’ entrance upon the scene. The Novgorod commissar telegraphed of disorders caused by a certain corporal Panasiuk, of “unwarranted arrests of landlords,” etc. In Tambov province a crowd of peasants, with certain furloughed soldiers at their head, had sacked a landlords estate. The first communications were doubtless exaggerated. The landlords certainly magnified these conflicts in their complaints, running ahead of the actual events. But one thing is beyond doubt; namely, that the leading rôle in the peasant movement was played by the soldier, who brought home from the front and from the city barracks a spirit of initiative.
One of the district land committees of Kharkov province decided, on April 5, to conduct a search for weapons among the landowners. That already smacks of the coming civil war. A disturbance arising in Skopinsky county, Riazan province, is explained by the commissar as due to a decree of the executive committee of a neighbouring county establishing compulsory rental to the peasants of the landlords’ lands. “The agitation of students in favour of tranquillity until the Constituent Assembly, has had no success.” Thus we learn that the students, “who had summoned the peasants in the first revolution to a campaign of terror, such being the tactic of the Social Revolutionaries at that time, were now, in 1917, preaching lawfulness and tranquillity – to be sure, without success.
The commissar of Simbirsk province draws the picture of a more developed peasant movement: The district and village committees – of which something will be said later – are arresting the landlords, banishing them from the province, calling out the workers from the landlords’ fields, seizing the land, establishing arbitrary rentals. “The delegates sent by the Executive Committee are taking their stand on the side of the peasants.” At the same time there begins a movement of the communal peasants against the individual landowners – against strong peasants, that is, who had detached themselves and taken up individual holdings on the basis of Stolypin’s law of November 9, 1906. “The situation in the provinces menaces the sowing of the fields.” As early as April, the Simbirsk province commissar can see no way out but immediately to declare the land national property, the terms on which it is to be used to be defined later by the Constituent Assembly.
From Kashir county, just outside Moscow, come complaints that the executive committee is inciting the population to the seizure without indemnity of the church, monastery and landlords’ estates. In Kursk province the peasants are removing the war-prisoners from work on the estates, and even locking them up in the local jail. After the peasant congresses, the peasants in the Penza province, inclining to a literal interpretation of the Social Revolutionary resolution on land and freedom, begin to violate a recently concluded contract with the landlords. At the same time they make an assault on the new organs of power. “Upon the organisation of the district and county executive committees in March, the intelligentsia composed the majority of their staffs, but afterwards” – reports the commissar of Penza – ”voices began to be heard against the intelligentsia, and by the middle of April the staff of the committees everywhere was exclusively composed of peasants whose tendency on the land question was clearly lawless.” A group of landlords of the neighbouring Kazan province complains to the Provisional Government of the impossibility of carrying on their business, because the peasants are calling off their workers, stealing seed, in many localities carrying off the movables of the estate, not permitting the landlord to cut wood in his own forest, threatening him with violence and death. “There are no courts; everybody does as he wishes; sensible people are terrorised.” The Kazan landlords already know who is guilty of this anarchy: “The instructions of the Provisional Government are unknown in the village, but Bolshevik leaflets are widely distributed.” However, there was no lack of instructions from the Provisional Government. In a telegram of March 20, Prince Lvov proposed to the commissars to create district committees as organs of the local power, recommending that they should draw into the work of these committees “the local landowners and all the intellectual forces of the village.” It was proposed to organise the whole state structure in the manner of a system of chambers of conciliation. The commissars, however, were soon weeping about the crowding out of the “intellectual forces.” The muzhik obviously did not trust his county and district Kerenskys.
On April 3, Prince Lvov’s substitute, Prince Yurussov – the Ministry of the Interior was adorned, we see, with lofty titles – recommends that no arbitrary acts shall be permitted, and especially “the freedom of every proprietor to dispose of his own land” – sweetest of all freedoms – shall be defended. Ten days later Prince Lvov himself considers it necessary to do something, and recommends to the commissars “to put a stop to every manifestation of violence and robbery with the whole power of the law.” Again two days later, Prince Yurussov instructs the provincial commissars “to take measures for the protection of the stud farms from lawless acts, explaining to the peasants ... and so forth.” On April 18, Prince Yurussov is troubled because the war-prisoners working for the landlords are beginning to present immoderate demands, and instructs the commissars to penalise these insolent fellows on the basis of the authority formerly enjoyed by the czar’s governors. Circulars, instructions, telegraphic directions pour down from above in a continual shower. On May 12 Prince Lvov enumerates in a new telegram the unlawful activities which are unceasing throughout the country arbitrary arrests, searches; removals from office, from management of estates, from administration of factories and shops; wrecking of properties; pillage, insubordination, hooliganism; acts of violence against official personages; imposition of taxes upon the population inciting one part of the population against another, etc., etc. All such forms of activity must be recognised as clearly unlawful and in certain cases even anarchistic ...” The characterisation is not very clear, but the conclusion is: “That the most decisive measures must be taken.” The provincial commissars resolutely issued orders to the counties, the counties brought pressure to bear on the district committees, and all of them together revealed their impotence in the face of the muzhiks.
Almost everywhere the nearest military detachments had a hand in the business. Oftenest indeed they took the initiative. The movement assumed widely different forms, according to local conditions and the sharpness of the struggle. In Siberia, where there were no landlords, the peasants took possession of the church and monastery lands. In other parts of the country, too, the clergy had a hard time. In the pious province of Smolensk, under the influence of soldiers arriving from the fronts, the priests and the monks were arrested. Local organisations were often compelled to go farther than they wanted to, merely to prevent the peasants from taking incomparably more radical steps. Early in May a county executive committee of Samara province appointed a social trustee over the property of Count Orlov-Davidov, thus protecting it from the peasants. Since the decree promised by Kerensky forbidding the sale of lands never did appear, the peasants began to stop these sales in their own way, preventing surveys of the land. Confiscation of the landlords’ weapons, even their hunting weapons, was spreading wider and wider. The peasants of Minsk province, complains the commissar, “take the resolutions of a peasant congress for law.” Yes, and how could they take them otherwise? Those congresses were the sole real power in the localities. Thus is revealed the vast dissonance between the Social Revolutionary intelligentsia drowning in words, and the peasantry demanding action.
Towards the end of May the far steppes of Asia billowed up. The Kirghiz, from whom the czardom used to take away their best lands for the benefit of its servants, arose now against the landlords, suggesting that they hand over at once the stolen goods. “This view is gaining ground in the steppes,” reported the Akmolinsk commissar. At the opposite end of the country, in Lifland province, a county executive committee sent a commission to investigate the sacking of the property of Baron Stahl von Holstein. The commission declared the disorders insignificant and the presence of the baron in the county undesirable for the public tranquillity, and proposed: To forward him along with the baroness to Petrograd and place them at the disposal of the Provisional Government. Thus arose one of the innumerable conflicts between the local and the central powers, between the Social Revolutionaries down below and the Social Revolutionaries on top.
A report of May 27 from Pavlograd county in Ekaterinoslav province paints an almost idyllic picture of law and order: The members of the land committee are explaining to the population all misunderstandings and thus “preventing any kind of excess.” Alas, this idyll will last but a few weeks. The head of one of the Kostroma monasteries bitterly complained at the end of May against a requisition by the peasants of a third of his horned cattle. The reverend monk should have been more meek: he will soon bid farewell to the other two-thirds.
In Kursk province there began a persecution of the individual settlers who had refused to return to the commune. In the hour of its great land revolution, its “Black Division,” the peasantry wanted to act as a single whole. Inner distinctions might prove an obstacle; the commune must stand forth as one man. The fight for the landlord’s land was therefore accompanied by acts of violence against the separate farmer – the land individualist.
On the last day of May, a soldier, Samoilov, was arrested in Perm province for inciting to non-payment of land taxes. Soldier Samoilov will soon be arresting others. During a religious procession in one of the villages in Kharkov province, a peasant Grichenko chopped down with an axe before the eyes of the entire village the revered icon of St. Nicholas. Thus all kinds of protests arise and express themselves in action. An anonymous naval officer and landlord, in his Notes of a White Guard, gives an interesting picture of the evolution of the village in the first months of the revolution. To all offices “almost everywhere they elected at first men from the bourgeois layers. Everybody was striving for but one thing – to maintain order.” The peasants, to be sure, made demands for the land, but during the first two or three months without violence. You could hear everywhere such phrases as “We do not want to rob, we want to get it by agreement,” etc. In these reassuring, affirmations the ear of the lieutenant caught a note of “concealed threat.” And in truth, although the peasantry in the first period did not resort to violence, still in relation to the so-called intellectual forces “they immediately began to reveal their disrespect.” This half-waiting attitude continued, according to the White Guard, until May or June, “after which a sharp change was to be observed – a tendency appeared to quarrel with the provisional regulations, to put things through to suit themselves.” In other words, the peasants gave the February revolution approximately three months grace on the promissory notes of the Social Revolutionaries, after which they began to collect their own way.
A soldier, Chinenov, who had joined the Bolsheviks, made two trips from Moscow after the revolution to his home in Orel. In May the Social Revolutionaries were dominant in the district. The muzhiks in many localities were still paying rent to the landlords. Chinenov organised a Bolshevik nucleus of soldiers, peasant farmhands and poor peasants. The nucleus advocated the cessation of rent payments and a distribution of land among the landless. They immediately registered the landlords’ meadow lands, divided them among the villages, and mowed them. “The Social Revolutionaries sitting in the district committees cried out against the illegality of our act, but did not renounce their own share of the hay.” As the village representatives would give up their offices through fear of responsibility, the peasants would select new ones who were more resolute. The latter were by no means always Bolsheviks. By direct pressure the peasants were producing a split in the Social Revolutionary Party, dividing the revolutionary elements from the functionaries and careerists. Having mowed the manorial hay, the muzhiks turned to the fallow land and began to divide it for the fall sowing. The Bolshevik nucleus decided to look over the manorial granaries and send the reserves of grain to the hungering capital. The resolution of the nucleus was carried out because it coincided with the mood of the peasants. Chinenov brought with him to his homeland some Bolshevik literature, a thing nobody had ever heard of until he arrived. “The local intelligentsia and the Social Revolutionaries,” he said, “spread a rumour that I was bringing with me a great deal of German gold and that I would bribe the peasants.” The same process developed on a small as on a large scale. The districts had their Miliukovs, their Kerenskys, and ... their Lenins.
In Smolensk province the influence of the, Social Revolutionaries began to grow after the Provincial Congress of peasant deputies, which declared itself, as was to be expected, for a transfer of land to the people. The peasants swallowed this decision whole, but in distinction from their leaders they swallowed it in earnest. Thenceforward the number of Social Revolutionaries in the villages increased continuously. “Anyone who had been in the Social Revolutionary faction at any congress,” relates one of the local party workers, “considered himself either a Social Revolutionary, or something very much like it.” In the county seat there were two regiments, also under the influence of the Social Revolutionaries. The district land committee began to plow the landlord’s land and mow his meadows. The provincial commissar, a Social Revolutionary, Efimov, issued threatening orders. The village was bewildered. Why, didn’t this same commissar tell us that the peasants themselves are now the government and that only he who works the land can benefit by it? But as a matter of fact at the direction of this Social Revolutionary commissar, Efimov, 16 district land committees out of 17, in Yelnin county alone, were brought to trial in the coming months for seizing the landlords’ land. Thus, in its own way, the romance between the Narodnik intelligentsia and the people drew to its denouément. In the whole county there were not more than three or four Bolsheviks. Their influence grew quickly, however, crowding out or splitting the Social Revolutionaries.
An All-Russian Peasant Congress was convoked in Petrograd at the beginning of May. The representation was largely upper crust, and in many cases accidental. If the workers’ and soldiers’ congresses continually lagged behind the course of events and the political evolution of the masses, it is needless to say how far the representation of a scattered peasantry lagged behind the actual mood of the Russian villages. As delegates there appeared, on the one hand, Narodnik intellectuals of the extreme right, associated with the peasantry chiefly through commercial co-operatives or the reminiscences of childhood. The genuine “people,” on the other hand, were represented by the better off upper strata of the villages, kulaks, shopkeepers, peasant co-operators. The Social Revolutionaries dominated this congress absolutely, and moreover in the person of their extreme right wing. At times, however, even they paused in fright before the reeking mixture of land greed and political “blackhundred-ism” which exuded from some of the deputies. In regard to the landlord problem an extremely radical position was formulated this congress: “Conversion of all land into national property for equal working use, without any indemnity.” To be sure, the kulak understood equality only in the sense of his equality with the landlord, not at all in the sense of his equality with the hired hands. However, this little misunderstanding between the fictitious socialism of the Narodniks and the agrarian democratism of the muzhiks would come out in the open only in the future.
The Minister of Agriculture, Chernov, burning with a desire to present an Easter egg to the Peasant Congress, vainly busied himself with the project of a decree forbidding land sales. The Minister of Justice, Pereverzev, also counting himself something of a Social Revolutionary, issued instructions during the very days of the congress that in the various localities no obstacles should be put in the way of land sales. On this subject the peasant deputies raised a noise. But the matter did not move forward a step. The Provisional Government of Prince Lvov would not agree to lay a hand on the landlords’ estates. The socialists did not want to lay a hand on the Provisional Government. And least of all was the staff of the congress capable of finding a way out of the contradiction between its appetite for land and its reactionism.
On the 20th of May, Lenin spoke at the Peasant Congress. It seemed, says Sukhanov, as though Lenin had landed in a pit of crocodiles. “However, the little muzhiks listened attentively and very likely not without sympathy, although they did not dare show it.” The same thing was repeated in the soldiers’ section, which was extremely hostile to the Bolsheviks. In the style of the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, Sukhanov tries to give Lenin’s tactics on the land question an anarchist tint. This is not so far from the attitude of Prince Lvov, who was always inclined to regard infringements of landlord rights as anarchist activities. According to this logic, the revolution as a whole is equivalent to anarchy. In reality Lenin’s way of posing the question was far deeper than it seemed to his critics. The instruments of the agrarian revolution, and primarily of the seizure of the landed estates, were to be the soviets of peasants’ deputies with the land committees subject to them. In Lenin’s eyes these soviets were the organs of a future state power, and that too a most concentrated power – namely, the revolutionary dictatorship. This is certainly far from anarchism, from the theory and practice of non-government. Lenin said on April 28 “We favour an immediate transfer of the land to the peasants, with the highest degree of organisation possible. We are absolutely against anarchist seizures.” Why, then, are we unwilling to await the Constituent Assembly? For this reason: “The important thing for us is revolutionary initiative; the laws should be the result of it. If you wait until the law is written, and do not yourselves develop revolutionary energy, you will get neither law nor land.” Are not these simple words the voice of all revolutions?
After a month’s sitting, the Peasant Congress elected as a permanent institution an executive committee composed of two hundred sturdy village petty bourgeois and Narodniks of the professorial or trader type, adorning them at the summit with the decorative figures of Breshkovskaia, Chaikovsky, Vera Figner and Kerensky. As president they elected the Social Revolutionary, Avksentiev, a man made for provincial banquets, but not for a peasant war.
Henceforward the more important questions were taken up at joint sessions of the two executive committees, that of the worker-soldiers and that of the peasants. This combination entailed a great strengthening of the right wing which blended directly with the Kadets. In all cases where it was necessary to bring pressure against the workers, come down on the heads of the Bolsheviks, or threaten the independent Kronstadt republic with whips and scorpions, the two hundred hands, or rather the two hundred fists, of the peasant executive committee would be lifted like a wall. Those people were fully in accord with Miliukov, that it was necessary to “make an end” of the Bolsheviks. But in regard to the landed estates, they had the views not of liberals, but of muzhiks, and this brought them into opposition with the bourgeoisie and the Provincial Government. The Peasant Congress had not had time to disperse, when complaints began to arrive that its resolutions were being taken seriously in the localities and that peasants were going about the business of appropriating the land and equipment of the landlords. It was simply impossible to hammer into those stubborn peasant skulls the difference between words and deeds.
The Social Revolutionaries, frightened, sounded the retreat. At the beginning of June, at their Moscow congress, they solemnly condemned all arbitrary seizures of land: we must wait for the Constituent Assembly. But their resolution proved impotent, not only to stop, but even to weaken the agrarian movement. The matter was further greatly complicated by the fact that in the Social Revolutionary party itself there was no small number of elements actually ready to go the limit with the muzhiks against the landlords. These left Social Revolutionaries, not yet having made up their minds to break with the party, helped the muzhiks get around the law, or at least interpret it in their own fashion.
In Kazan province, where the peasant movement assumed especially stormy proportions, the left wing of the Social Revolutionaries defined itself sooner than in other places. At their head stood Kalegaev, subsequently Commissar of Agriculture in the Soviet Government during the bloc between the Bolsheviks and the Social Revolutionaries. From the middle of May there began in Kazan province a systematic transfer of land to the district committees. This measure was adopted most boldly of all in Spassk county, where a Bolshevik stood at the head of the peasant organisations. The provincial authorities complained to the centre about the agrarian agitation carried on by Bolsheviks coming from Kronstadt, and added that the pious nun Tamara was arrested for “making objections.”
From the province of Yorenezh the commissar reported on June 2: “Incidents of lawbreaking and illegal activity in the province are growing more numerous every day, especially in the agrarian matter.” In Penza province also, the seizures of land were becoming more insistent. One of the district land committees in Kaluga province deprived the monastery of half of its meadow lands, and upon the complaint of the abbot the county committee resolved: that the meadows should be taken as a whole. It is not often that the higher institution proves more radical than the lower. In Penza province an abbess, Maria, weeps over the seizure of the nunnery’s land. “The local authorities are powerless.”
In Viatka province the peasants closed up the property of the Skoropadskys, the family of the future Ukrainian hetman, and “until the decision of the question of landed property” resolved that nobody should touch the forests, and that the income from the property should be paid into the public treasury. In a series of other localities the land committees not only lowered the rent five or six times, but directed that it should not be paid to the landlords, but placed at the disposal of the committees until the question should be settled by the Constituent Assembly. This was not a lawyer’s but a muzhik’s way – that is, a serious way – of postponing the question about land reforms until the Constituent Assembly. In Saratov province the peasants who only yesterday forbade the landlords to cut down the forests have today begun to fell the trees themselves. Oftener and oftener the peasants are seizing the church and monastery lands, especially where there are few landlords. In Lifland, the Lettish farm workers, along with soldiers of the Lettish Battalion, undertake an organised seizure of the baronial lands.
The lumber kings from Vitebsk province cry loudly that the measures adopted by the land committees are destroying the lumber industry and preventing them from supplying the needs of the front. Those no less. disinterested patriots, the landlords of the Poltava province, grieve over the fact that agrarian disorders are making it impossible; for them to supply provisions for the army. Finally a congress of horse breeders in Moscow gives warning that peasant seizures are threatening with gigantic misfortunes the studs of the Fatherland. In those days the Procuror of the Holy Synod, the same one who called the members of that sacred institution “idiots and scoundrels,” complains to the government that in Kazan province the peasants are taking away from the monks not only lands and cattle, but also the flour necessary for the holy bread. In Petrograd province, two steps from the capital, the peasants drive the lessee out of a property and begin to run it themselves. The wide-awake Prince Yurussov again telegraphs on June 2 to the four winds: “In spite of a series of demands from me ... etc., etc. ... I again ask you to take the most decisive measures.” The prince only forgets to say what measures.
In those times, when a gigantic job of tearing up the deepest roots of medievalist and serfdom was under way throughout the whole country, the Minister of Agriculture, Chernov, was gathering in his chancelleries materials for the. Constituent Assembly. He intended to introduce the reform no otherwise than on the basis of the most accurate agricultural data and statistics of all possible kinds, and therefore kept urging the peasants with the sweetest of voices to wait until his exercises were finished. This did not, however, prevent the landlords from kicking out the “Rural Minister” long before he had completed his sacramental tables.
On the basis of the archives of the Provisional Government young investigators have concluded that in March the agrarian movement had arisen with more or less strength in only 84 counties. In April, it had seized 174 counties; in May, 236; in June, 280; in July, 325. These figures, however, do not give complete picture of the actual growth of the movement, because in each county the struggle assumed from month to month more and more stubborn and broad mass character.
In that first period, from March to July the peasants in their overwhelming majority are still refraining from direct acts of violence against the landlords, and from open seizures of the land. Yakovlev, the leader of the above-mentioned investigations, now People’s Commissar of Agriculture of the Soviet Union, explains the comparatively peaceful tactics of the peasants by their trustfulness toward the bourgeoisie. This explanation must be declared invalid. To say nothing of the continual suspiciousness of the muzhik toward the city the authorities and cultivated society a government headed by Prince Lvov could not possibly dispose the peasants to trustfulness. If the peasants during this first period hardly ever resort to measures of open violence, and are still trying to give their activities the form of legal or semi-legal pressure, this is explained by their very distrustfulness of the government, combined with an insufficient trust in their own powers. The peasants are only pacing the take-off, feeling out the ground, measuring the resistance of the enemy – bringing pressure upon the landlords from all directions. “We do not want to rob,” they recite, “we want to do everything nicely.” They are not appropriating the meadow, but only cutting the hay. They are only compelling the landlords to rent them the land, but are themselves establishing the price. Or with a similar compulsion they are “buying” the land – but at a price designated by themselves. All these legal coverings, none too convincing to the landlord or the liberal jurists, are dictated in reality by a concealed but deep distrust of the government. “You won’t get it by being good,” says the muzhik to himself, “and force is dangerous – let’s try foxiness.” He would prefer, of course, to expropriate the landlord with his own consent.
“Throughout all these months,” insists Yakovlev, “there prevails a wholly unique method of ‘Peaceful’ struggle with the landlord, a thing never before seen in history, a result of the peasants’ trust in the bourgeoisie and the government of the bourgeoisie.” These methods here declared to have been never before seen in history, are in reality the typical and inevitable methods historically obligatory throughout the entire planet in the initial stages of a peasant war. The attempt to disguise its first rebel steps with legality, both sacred and secular, has from time immemorial characterised the struggle of every revolutionary class, before it has gathered sufficient strength and confidence to break the umbilical cord which bound it to the old society. This is more completely true of the peasantry than of any other class, for even in its best periods the peasantry advances in semi-darkness, looking upon its city friends with distrustful eyes. It has good reasons for this. The friends of an agrarian movement in its first steps are the agents of the liberal and radical bourgeoisie. And while promoting a part of the peasant demands, these friends are, nevertheless alarmed for the fate of bourgeois property rights, and therefore try their best to lead the peasant uprising on to the rails of bourgeois legality.
Long before the revolution, other factors operate in the same direction. From the milieu of the nobility itself there arise preachers of conciliation. Leo Tolstoy looked deeper into the soul of the muzhik than anybody else. His philosophy of non-resistance to evil by violence was a generalisation of the first stages of the muzhik revolution. Tolstoy dreamed of a day when it would all come to pass “without robbery, by mutual consent.” He built up a religious foundation under this tactic in the form of a purified Christianity. Mahatma Gandhi is now fulfilling the same mission in India, only in a more practical form. If we go backward from the present day we shall have no difficulty in finding, similar “never before seen in history” phenomena in all sorts of religious, national, philosophical and political disguises, beginning with Biblical times and still earlier.
The peculiarity of the peasant uprising of 1917 lay only in the fact that the agents of bourgeois legality were people who called themselves socialists, and also revolutionists. But it was not they who determined the character of the peasant movement and its rhythm. The peasants followed the Social Revolutionaries only in so far as they could secure from them adequate formulas for a settlement with the landlord. At the same time the Social Revolutionaries served them in the capacity of a juridical disguise: this was, after all, the party of Kerensky, Minister of Justice and afterwards War Minister, and of Chernov, Minister of Agriculture. The delay in the promulgation of the necessary decrees would be explained by the district and county Social Revolutionaries as due to the resistance of the landlords and liberals. They would assure the peasants that “our people” in the government are doing their very best. To this of course the muzhik had no answer. But not suffering in the least from that precious “trustfulness,” he deemed it necessary to help “our people” from below, and he did this so thoroughly that “our people” up above soon began to feel their very joints cracking.
The weakness of the Bolsheviks in relation to the peasant was temporary, and due to the fact that the Bolsheviks did not share the peasant illusions. The village could come to Bolshevism only through experience and disappointment. The strength the Bolsheviks lay in the fact that on the agrarian question, as on others, they were free of the divergence between word and deed.
General sociological considerations could not yield an a priori decision as to whether the peasantry as a whole were capable of rising against the landlords or not. The strengthening of capitalist tendencies in agriculture during the period between the two revolutions, the dividing off of a layer of wealthy farmers from the primitive commune, the extraordinary growth of rural co-operation administered by well-off and rich peasants – all this made it impossible to say with certainty which of two tendencies would weigh the most in the revolution: the agrarian caste antagonism between the peasantry and the nobility, or the class antagonism within the peasantry itself.
Lenin upon his arrival took a very cautious position upon this question. “The agrarian movement,” he said on April 14, “is only a prophecy, not a fact ... We must be prepared for a union of the peasantry with the bourgeoisie.” That was not a thought accidentally tossed off. On the contrary, Lenin insistently repeated it in many connections. At a party conference on April 24, he said attacking the “old Bolsheviks” who had accused him of underestimating the peasantry: “It is not permissible for a prôletarian party to rest its hopes at this time on a community of interest with the peasantry. We are struggling to bring the peasantry over to our side, but they now stand to a certain degree consciously – on the, side of the capitalists.” This demonstrates among other things how far Lenin was from that theory of an eternal harmony of interest between proletariat and peasantry subsequently attributed to him by the epigones. While admitting the possibility that the peasantry, as a caste, might act as a revolutionary factor, Lenin nevertheless was getting ready in April for a less favourable variant; namely, a stable bloc of the landlords, bourgeoisie and broad layers of the peasantry. “To try to attract the peasant now,” he said, “means to throw ourselves on the mercy of Miliukov.” Hence the conclusion: “Transfer the centre of gravity to the soviets of farm-hand deputies.”
But the more favourable variant was realised. The agrarian movement from being a prophesy became a fact, revealing for a brief moment, but with extraordinary force, the superiority of the caste ties of the peasantry over the capitalistic antagonisms. The soviets of farm-hand deputies attained significance only in a few localities, chiefly the Baltic provinces. The land committees, on the contrary, became the instruments of the whole peasantry, who with their heavy-handed pressure converted them from chambers of conciliation into weapons of agrarian revolution.
This fact that the peasantry as a whole found it possible once more – for the last time in their history – to act as a revolutionary factor, testifies at once to the weakness of capitalist relations in the country and to their strength. The bourgeois economy had not yet by any means sucked up the land relations of medieval serfdom. At the same time the capitalist development had gone so far that it had made the old forms of landed property equally unbearable for all layers of the village. The interweaving of landlord and peasant property-quite often conscious arranged in such a way as to convert the landlord’s rights in a trap for the whole commune – the frightful striped owners of the village land, and finally the very recent antagonism between the land commune and the individualist owners – all this together created an unbearable tangle of land relationships from which it was impossible to escape by way of halfhearted legislative measures. Moreover, the peasants felt it more deeply than any agrarian theoreticians could. The experience of life handed down through a series of generations led them all to the same conclusion: we must bury both hereditary and acquired rights in the land, erase all boundary marks, and hand over the land, purged of historic deposits, to those who work it. This was the meaning of the muzhik’s aphorism: the land is no man’s, the land is God’s. And in this same spirit the peasantry interpreted the Social Revolutionary programme: socialisation of the land. All Narodnik theories to the contrary notwithstanding, there was not in this one grain of socialism. The most audacious of agrarian revolutions has never yet by itself overstepped the bounds of the bourgeois régime. That socialisation which was to guarantee to each toiler his “right to the land,” was with the preservation of unrestricted market relations, an utter Utopia. Menshevism criticised this Utopia from the liberal-bourgeois point of view. Bolshevism, on the other hand, exposed the progressive democratic tendency which was finding in these theories of the Social Revolutionaries a Utopian expression. This exposure of the genuine historic meaning of the Russian agrarian movement was one of the greatest services of Lenin.
Miliukov wrote that for him, “as a sociologist and investigator of Russian historic evolution” – that is, a man surveying the course of events from a height – ”Lenin and Trotsky are leading a movement far nearer to Pugatchev and Razin, to Bolotnikov – to the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries of our history – than to the last word in European anarcho-syndicalism.” That dole of truth which is contained in this assertion of the liberal sociologist – leaving aside his reference to “anarcho-syndicalism” which was dragged in here for some unknown reason – militates not against the Bolsheviks, but rather against the Russian bourgeoisie, their belatedness and political insignificance. The Bolsheviks are not to blame that those colossal peasant movements of past ages did not lead to a democratisation of social relations in Russia – without cities to lead them it was unattainable! – nor are the Bolsheviks to blame that the so-called liberation of the peasants in 1861 was carried out in such a way as to involve stealing of the communal land, enslavement of the peasant to the state, and complete preservation of the caste system. One thing is true: the Bolsheviks were obliged to carry through in the first quarter of the twentieth century that which was not carried through – or not even undertaken at all – in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Before taking up their own great task, they had to clear the ground of the historic rubbish of the old ruling classes and the old ages. We may add that the Bolsheviks at least fulfilled this preliminary task most conscientiously. This Miliukov will now hardly venture to deny.
Last updated on: 125 December 2014