Civilisation has made the peasantry its pack animal. The bourgeoisie in the long run only changed the form of the pack. Barely tolerated on the threshold of the national life, the peasant stands essentially outside the threshold of science. The historian is ordinarily as little interested in him as the dramatic critic is in those grey figures who shift the scenery, carrying the heavens and earth on their backs, and scrub the dressing-rooms of the actors. The part played by the peasantry in past revolutions remains hardly cleared up to this day.
“The French bourgeoisie began by liberating the peasantry,” wrote Marx in 1848. “With the help of the peasantry they conquered Europe. The Prussian bourgeoisie was so blinded by its own narrow and close-by interests that it lost even this ally, and turned it into a weapon in the hands of the feudal counter-revolution.” In this contrast what relates to the German bourgeoisie is true; but the assertion that “the French bourgeoisie began by liberating the peasantry” is an echo of that official French legend which exercised an influence in its day even upon Marx. In reality the bourgeoisie, in the proper sense of the term, opposed the peasant revolution with all the power it had. Even from the rural instructions of 1789 the local leaders of the Third Estate threw out, under the guise of editing, the keenest and most bold demands. The famous decision of August 4, adopted by the National Assembly amid the glow of rural conflagrations, long remained a pathetic formula without content. The peasants who would not reconcile themselves to this deceit were adjured by the Constituent Assembly to “return to the fulfilment of their duties and have the proper respect for [feudal] property.” The civil guard tried more than once to put down the peasantry in the country. But the city workers, taking the side of those in revolt, met the bourgeois punitive expeditions with stones and broken tile.
Throughout five years the French peasantry rose at every critical moment of the revolution, preventing a deal between the feudal and bourgeois property-holders. The Parisian Sans-culottes, pouring out their blood for the republic, liberated the peasant from his feudal chains. The French republic of 1792 marked a new social régime – in contradistinction to the German republic of 1918, or the Spanish republic of 1931, which mean only the old régime minus the dynasty. At the bottom of this difference it is not hard to find the agrarian question.
The French peasant did not think directly of a republic; he wanted to throw off the landlord. The Parisian republicans ordinarily forgot all about the country. But it was only the peasant pressure upon the landlord which guaranteed the creation of a republic, clearing the feudal rubbish out of its road. A republic with a nobility is not a republic. This was excellently understood by the old man Machiavelli, who in his Florentine exile 400 years before the presidency of Ebert, between hunting thrushes and playing at tric-trac with the butcher, generalised the experience of democratic revolutions. “Who ever wants to found a republic in a country where there are many nobles, can only do this if to begin with he exterminates them all. The Russian Muzhiks were essentially of the same opinion, and they revealed this openly without any “Machiavellianism.”
While Petrograd and Moscow played the main rôle in the movement of the workers and soldiers, the first place in the peasant movement must be accorded to the backward Great Russian agricultural centre, and the middle region of the Volga. Here the relics of serfdom had especially deep roots; the nobles’ proprietorship in the land was most parasitic in character; the differentiation of the peasantry was far behind and the poverty of the village thus more nakedly revealed. Bursting out in this region as early as March, the movement had been immediately adorned with acts of terror. Through the efforts of the dominant parties it was soon switched, however, into the channel of compromise politics.
In the industrially backward Ukraine, agriculture, carried on for export, had acquired a far more progressive and consequently more capitalistic character. Here the stratification of the peasantry had gone considerably farther than in Great Russia. The struggle for national liberation moreover inevitably delayed, at least for the time being, other forms of social straggle. But the variation in regional, and even national, conditions expressed itself in the long run only in a difference of dates. By autumn the territory of the peasant struggle had become almost the whole country. Out of the 624 counties constituting old Russia, 482, or 77 per cent, were involved in the movement. And omitting the borderlands, distinguished by special agrarian conditions – the northern district, the Transcaucasus, the region of the steppes, and Siberia – out of 481 counties, 439, or 91 per cent, were drawn into the peasant revolt.
The methods of struggle differ according to whether it is a question of ploughed land, forest, pasture, of rentals or of hired labour. The struggle changed its forms and methods, too, at various stages of the revolution. But in general the movement of the villages passed, with inevitable delay, through the same two great stages as the movement of the cities. In the first stage the peasants were still accommodating themselves to the new régime, and trying to solve their problems by means of the new institutions. Even here, however, it was more a matter of form than substance. The Moscow liberal newspaper – tinted before the revolution with a Narodnik hue – expressed with admirable directness the state of mind of the landlord circles in the summer of 1917. “The muzhik is glancing round, he is not doing anything yet, but look in his eyes – his eyes will tell you that all the land lying around him is his land.” A perfect key to this “peaceful” policy of the peasantry, is a telegram sent in April by one of the Tomboy villages to the Provisional Government:
“We desire to keep the peace in the interests of the freedom won. But for this reason, forbid the sale of the landlords’ land until the Constituent Assembly. Otherwise we will shed blood, but we will not let anyone else plough the land.”
The muzhik found it easy to maintain a tone of respectful threat, because in bringing his pressure to bear against historic rights, he hardly had to come into direct conflict with the state at all. Organs of the governmental power were lacking in the localities. The village committees controlled the militia, the courts were disorganised, the local commissars were powerless, “We elected you,” the peasants would shout at them, “and we will kick you out.”
During the summer the peasants, developing the struggle of the preceding months, came nearer and nearer to civil war, and their left wing even stepped over its threshold. According to a report of the landed proprietors of the Taganrog district, the peasants on their own initiative seized the hay crop, took possession of the land, hindered the ploughing, named arbitrary rental prices, and removed proprietors and overseers. According to a report of the Nizhegorod commissar, violent activities and seizures of land and forest in his province were multiplying. The county commissars were afraid of seeming to the peasants like defenders of the big landlords. The rural militia were not to be relied on. “There have been cases when officers of the militia took part in violence together with the mob.” In Schliasselburg county a local committee prevented the landlords from cutting their own forest. The thought of the peasants was simple: No Constituent Assembly can resurrect the trees that are cut down. The commissar of the Ministry of the Court complains of the seizure of hay: We have had to buy hay for the court horses In Kursk province the peasants divided among themselves the fertilised fallow land of Tereshchenko. The proprietor was Minister of Foreign Affairs. The peasants declared to Schneider, a horse breeder of Orlov province, that they would not only cut the clover on his estate, but him too they might “send into the army.” The village committee directed the overseer of Rodzianko’s estate to surrender the hay to the peasants: ’If you don’t listen to this land committee, you’ll get treated differently, you’ll get arrested Signed and sealed.
From all corners of the country complaints and wails poured in – from victims, from local authorities, from noble-minded observers. The telegrams of the landowners constitute a most brilliant refutation of the crude theory of class struggle. These titled nobles, lords of the latifundia, spiritual and temporal rulers, are worrying exclusively about the public weal. Their enemy is not the peasants, but the Bolsheviks – sometimes the anarchists, Their own property engages the landlord’s interest solely from the point of view of the welfare of the fatherland. 300 members of the Kadet Party in Chernigov province declare that the peasants, incited by Bolsheviks, are removing the war prisoners from work and themselves independently reaping the harvest. As a result, they cry, we are threatened with “inability to pay the taxes.” The very meaning of existence for these liberal landlords lay in supporting the national treasury! The Podolsk branch of the State Bank complains of the arbitrary actions of village committees, “whose presidents are often Austrian prisoners.” Here it is injured patriotism that speaks. In Vladimir province, in the manor of a registrar of deeds, Odintsov, the peasants took away building materials that had been “made ready for philanthropic institutions.” Public officials live only for the love of mankind! A bishop from Podolsk reports the arbitrary seizure of a forest belonging to the house of the Archbishop. The procurator complains of the seizure of meadowlands from the Alexandro-Nevsky Monastery. The Mother Superior of the Kizliarsk Convent calls down thunder and lightning upon the members of the local committee. They are interfering in the affairs of the convent, confiscating rentals for their own use, “inciting the nuns against their superiors.” In all these cases the spiritual needs of the church are directly affected. Count Tolstoi, one of the sons of Leo Tolstoi, reports in the name of the League of Agriculturists of Ufimsk province that the transfer of land to the local committees “without waiting for a decision of the Constituent Assembly ... is causing an outburst of dissatisfaction among the peasant proprietors, of whom there are more than 200,000 in the province” The hereditary lord is troubled exclusively about his lesser brothers. Senator Belgardt, a proprietor of Tver province, is ready to reconcile himself to cuttings in the forest, but is grieved and offended that the peasants “will not submit to the bourgeois government.” A Tombov landlord, Veliaminop, demands the rescue of two estates which “are serving the needs of the army.” By accident these two estates happened to belong to him. For the philosophy of idealism these landlord telegrams of 1917 are verily a treasure. A materialist will rather see in them a display of the various models of cynicism. He will add perhaps that great revolutions deprive the property-holders even of the privilege of dignified hypocrisy.
The appeals of the victims to the county and provincial authorities, to the Minister of the Interior, to the President of the Council of Ministers, brought as a general rule no result. From whom then shall we ask aid? From Rodzianko, president of the State Duma! Between the July Days and the Kornilov insurrection, the Lord Chamberlain again felt himself an influential figure: much was done at a ring from his telephone.
The functionaries of the Ministry of the Interior send out circulars to the localities about bringing the guilty to trial. The brusque landlords of Samara telegraph in answer: “Circulars without the signature of the socialist minister have no force.” The function of socialism is thus revealed. Tseretelli is compelled to overcome his bashfulness. On the 18th of July he sends out a wordy instruction about taking “swift and decisive measures.” Like the landlords themselves, Tseretelli worries solely about the army and the state. It seems to the peasants, however, that Tseretelli is protecting the landlords.
There came a sudden change in the government’s method of pacifying the peasants. Up to July the prevailing method had been talking them out of it. If military detachments were also sent into the localities, it was only in the capacity of a guard for the government orator. After the victory over the Petrograd workers and soldiers, however, cavalry troops – now without vocal persuaders – put themselves directly at the disposal of the landlords. In Kazan province, one of the most tumultuous, they succeeded – to quote the young historian, Yugov – “only by means of arrests, by bringing armed troops into the villages, and even by reviving the custom of flogging ... in reducing the peasants to submission.” In other places, too, these measures of repression were not without effect. The number of damaged landlord properties fell somewhat in July: from 516 to 503. In August the government achieved still further successes: the number of unsatisfactory counties fell from 325 to 288 – that is, 11 per cent; the number of properties involved in the movement was even reduced 33 per cent.
Certain districts, heretofore the most restless, now quiet down or retire to second place. On the other hand, districts which were reliable yesterday now come into the struggle. Only a month ago the Penza commissar was painting a consoling picture: “The country is busy reaping the harvest ... Preparations are under way for the elections to the village zemstvos. The period of governmental crisis passed quietly. The formation of the new government was greeted with great satisfaction.” In August there is not a trace left of this idyll. “Mass depredations upon orchards and the cutting down of forests ... To quell the disorders, we have had to resort to armed force.”
In its general character the summer movement still belongs to the “peaceful” period. However, unmistakable, although indeed weak, symptoms of radicalisation are already to be observed. Whereas in the first four months cases of direct attack upon the landlords’ manors decreased, from July on they begin to increase. Investigators have established in general the following classification of the July conflicts, arranged in a diminishing order starting with the most numerous: Seizure of meadows, of crops, of food-stuffs and fodder, of ploughed fields, of implements; conflict over the conditions of employment; destruction of manors. In August the order is as follows: Seizure of crops, of reserve provisions and fodder, of meadows and hay, of land and forest; agrarian terror.
At the beginning of September Kerensky, in his capacity of commander-in-chief, issued a special order repeating the recent arguments and threats of his predecessor, Kornilov, against “violent activities” on the part of the peasants. A few days later Lenin wrote: “Either ... all the land to the peasants immediately ... or the landlords and capitalists ... will bring things to the point of an endlessly ferocious peasant revolt.” During the months following this became a fact.
The number of properties affected by agrarian conflicts in September rose 30 per cent over that in August; in October, 43 per cent over that in September. In September and the first three weeks of October there occurred over a third as many agrarian conflicts as all those recorded since March. Their resoluteness rose, however, incomparably faster than their number. During the first months even direct seizures of various appurtenances wore the aspect of bargains mitigated and camouflaged by the compromisist institutions. Now the legal mask falls away. Every branch of the movement assumes a more audacious character. From various forms and degrees of pressure, the peasants are now passing over to violent seizures of the various parts of the landlord’s business, to the extermination of the nests of the gentility, the burning of manors, even the murder of proprietors and overseers.
The struggle for a change in the conditions of rent, which in June exceeded in number of cases the destructive movement, falls in October to 1/40 the number. Moreover the rent movement itself changes its character, becoming merely another way of driving out the landlord. The veto on buying and selling land and forest gives place to direct seizure. The mass wood-cuttings and mass grazings acquire the character of a deliberate destruction of the landlord’s goods. In September 279 cases of open destruction of property are recorded; they now constitute more than one eighth of all the conflicts. Over 42 per cent of all the cases of destruction recorded by the militia between the February and the October revolution occurred in the month of October.
The struggle for the forests was especially bitter. Whole villages were frequently burned to the ground. The timber was strongly guarded and selling at a high price; the muzhik was starving for timber; moreover the time had come to lay up firewood for the winter. Complaints came in from Moscow, Nizhegorod, Petrograd, Orel, and Volyn provinces – from all corners of the country – about the destruction of forests and the seizure of the reserves of corded wood. “The peasants are arbitrarily and ruthlessly cutting down the forest. Two hundred dessiatins of the landlord’s forest have been burned by the peasants.” “The peasants of Klimovichevsky and Cherikovsky counties are destroying the forests and laying waste the winter-wheat ...” The forests guards are in flight; the landlord’s forests are groaning; the chips are flying throughout the whole country. All that autumn the muzhik’s axe was feverishly beating time for the revolution.
In the districts which imported grain the food situation in the villages deteriorated at a faster pace than in the city. Not only food was lacking, but seed. In the exporting regions, in consequence of a redoubled pumping out of food resources, the situation was but little better. The raising of the fixed price of grain hit the poor. In a number of provinces there occurred hunger riots, plundering of granaries, assaults on the institutions of the Food Administration. The population resorted to substitutes for bread. Reports came in of cases of scurvy and typhus, of suicides from despair. Hunger and its advancing shadow made the neighbourhood of opulence and luxury especially intolerable. The more destitute strata of the villages moved into the front ranks of the fight.
These waves of bitter feeling raised up no little slime from the bottom. In Kostroma province “a Black Hundred and anti-Jew agitation is observed. Criminality is on the increase ... A waning of interest in the political life of the country is noticeable.” This latter phrase in the report of the commissar means:
The educated classes are turning their back on the revolution. The voice of Black Hundred monarchism suddenly rings out from Podolsk province: The committee of the village of Demidovka does not recognise the Provisional Government and considers the Czar Nikolai Alexandrovich “the most loyal leader of the Russian people. If the Provisional Government does not retire, we will join the Germans.” Such bold acknowledgments, however, are unique. The monarchists among the peasants have long ago changed colour, following the example of the landlords. In places – for instance, in that same Podolsk province – military detachments in company with the peasants invade the wine cellars. The commissar reports anarchy. “The villages and the people are perishing; the revolution is perishing.” No, the revolution is far from perishing. It is digging itself a deeper channel The raging waters are nearing their mouth.
On a night about the 8th of September, the peasants of the village Sychevka in Tombov province, going from door to door armed with clubs and pitchforks, called out everybody, small and great, to raid the landlord, Romanov. At a village meeting one group proposed that they take the estate in an orderly fashion, divide the property among the population, and keep the buildings for cultural purposes. The poor demanded that they burn the estate, leaving not one stone upon another. The poor were in the majority. On that same night an ocean of fire swallowed up the estates of the whole township. Everything inflammable was burned, even the experimental fields. The breeding cattle were slaughtered. “They were drunk to madness.” The flames jumped over from township to township. The rustic warriors were now no longer content with the patriarchal scythe and pitchfork. A provincial commissar telegraphed: “Peasants and unknown persons armed with revolvers and hand grenades are raiding the manors in Ranenburg and Riazhsky counties.” It was the war that introduced this high technique into the peasant revolt. The League of Landowners reported that 24 estates were burned in three days. “The local authorities were powerless to restore order.” After some delay troops arrived, sent by the district commander. Martial law was declared, meetings forbidden, the instigators arrested. Ravines were filled with the landlord’s possession and much of the booty was sunk in the river.
A Penza peasant, Begishev, relates : “In September all rode out to raid Logvin (he was raided in 1905, too). A troop of teams and wagons streamed out to his estate and back, hundreds of muzhiks and wenches began to drive and carry off his cattle, grain, etc.” A detachment called out by the land administration tried to get back some of the booty, but the muzhiks and wenches assembled 500 strong in the village, and the detachment dispersed. The soldiers wore evidently not at all eager to restore the trampled rights of the landlord. In Tauride province, beginning with the last seven days of September, according to the recollections of the peasant, Gaponenko, “the peasants began to raid the buildings, drive out the overseers, take the work animals, the machinery, the grain from the granaries ... They even tore off the blinds from the windows, the doors from their frames, the floors from the rooms, and the zinc roofs, and carried them away ...” “At first they only came on foot, took what they could and lugged it off,” relates Grunko, a peasant from Minsk, “but afterwards they hitched up the horses, whoever had any, and carried things away in whole wagon-loads. There was no room to pass. They just dragged and carried things off, beginning at twelve o’clock noon, for two days and two nights without a stop. In those forty-eight hours they cleaned out everything.” The seizure of property, according to a Moscow peasant, Kuzmichev, was justified as follows: “The landlord was ours, we worked for him, and the property he had ought to belong to us alone.” Once upon a time the landlords used to say to the serfs: “You are mine and what is yours is mine.” Now the peasants were giving their answer: “He was our lord and all his goods are ours.”
“In several localities they began to knock up the landlords in the night,” remembers another Minsk peasant, Novikov. “Oftener and oftener they would burn the landlord’s manor.” It came the turn of the estate of the Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaivich, former commander-in-chief. “When they had taken away all they could get, they began breaking up the stoves, removing the flue-plates, ripping up the floors and planks, and dragging it all home ...”
Behind these destructive activities stood the century-old, thousand-year-old strategy of all peasant wars: to raze to the ground the fortified position of the enemy. Leave him no place to cover his head. “The more reasonable ones,” remembers a Kursk peasant, Tzygankov, “would say ‘We must not burn up the buildings – they will be of use to us for schools and hospitals,’ but the majority were the kind that shout out ‘We must destroy everything so that in case anything happens our enemy will have no place to hide.’” “The peasants seized all the landlords’ property,” relates an Orel peasant, Savchenko, “drove the landlords Out of the estates, smashed the windows, doors, ceilings and floors of the landlords’ houses ... The soldiers said ‘If you destroy the wolves’ nests, you must strangle the wolves too.’ Through such threats the biggest and most important landlords hid out, and for that reason there was no murder of landlords.”
In the village of Zalessye, in Vitebsk province, they burned barns full of grain and hay in the estate belonging to a Frenchman, Barnard. The muzhiks were the less inclined to investigate questions of nationality, since many of the landlords had transferred their land in a hurry to privileged foreigners. “The French embassy requests that measures be taken ...” In the front region in the middle of October it was difficult to take “measures,” even in behalf of the French embassy.
The destruction of the great estates near Riazan continued four days. “Even children took part in the looting.” The League of Landed Proprietors brought to the attention of the ministers that if measures were not taken “lynch-law, famine and civil war would break out.” It is difficult to understand why the landlords were still speaking of civil war in the future tense. At a congress of the Co-operatives at the beginning of September, Berkenheim, one of the leaders of the strong trading peasantry, said: “I am convinced that not yet all Russia has become a madhouse, that as yet for the most part only the population of the big cities has gone mad.” This self-complacent voice of the solid and conservative part of the peasantry was hopelessly behind the times. It was during that very month that the villages totally broke loose from all the nooses of reason, and the ferocity of their struggle left the “madhouse” of the cities far behind.
In April Lenin had still considered it possible that the patriotic Co-operators and the kulaks would drag the main mass of the peasantry after them along the road of compromise with the bourgeoisie and the landlord. For this reason he so tirelessly insisted upon the creation of special soviets of farm hands’ deputies, and upon independent organisations of the poorest peasantry. Month by month it became clear, however, that this part of the Bolshevik policy would not take root. Except in the Baltic state there were no soviets of farm hands. The peasant poor also failed to find independent forms of organisation. To explain this merely by the backwardness of the farm hands and the poorest strata of the villages, would be to miss the essence of the thing. The chief cause lay in the substance of the historic task itself – a democratic agrarian revolution.
Upon the two principal questions, rent and hired labour, it becomes convincingly clear how the general interests of a struggle against the relics of serfdom cut off the road to an independent policy not only for the poor peasants, but for the hired hands. The peasants rented from the landlords in European Russia 27 million dessiatins – about 60 per cent of all the privately owned land – and they paid a yearly – rental tribute of 400 million roubles. The struggle against peonage conditions of rent became after the February revolution the chief element of the peasant movement. A smaller, but still very important, place was occupied by the struggle of the rural wage-workers, which brought them in opposition not only to the landlord, but also to the peasant exploiters. The tenant was struggling for an alleviation of the conditions of rent, the worker for an improvement in the conditions of labour. Both of them, each in his own way, started out by recognising the landlord as property-holder and boss. But as soon as the possibility opened of carrying the thing through to the end – that is, of taking the land and occupying it themselves – the poor peasants ceased to be interested in questions of rent, and the trade union began to lose its attraction for the hired hand. It was these rural workers and poor tenants who by joining the general movement gave its ultimate determination to the peasant war and made it irrevocable.
But the campaign against the landlord did not draw in quite so completely the opposite pole of the village. So long as it did not come to open revolt, the upper circles of the peasantry played a prominent rôle in the movement, at times a leading rôle. In the autumn period, however, the well-to-do muzhiks looked with continually increasing distrust at the spread of the peasant war. They did not know how this would end; they had something to lose; they stood aside. But they did not succeed in holding off entirely: the village would not permit it.
More reserved and hostile than “our own” communal kulaks, were the small landowners standing outside the commune. In the whole country there were 600,000 homesteads of peasants owning plots up to 50 dessiatins. In many localities they constituted the backbone of the Co-operatives, and gravitated, especially in the south, towards the conservative Peasant Union which had already become a bridge towards the Kadets. “The Secessionists and rich peasants,” according to Gullis, a Minsk peasant, “supported the landlords and tried to appease the peasantry with arguments.” In some places, under the influence of local conditions, the struggle within the peasantry assumed a furious character even before the October revolution. The Secessionists  suffered most cruelly in this struggle. “Almost all their farm buildings were burnt,” says Kuzmichev, a Nizhegorod peasant. “Their property was partly annihilated and partly seized by the peasants.” The Secessionist was “the landlord’s servant entrusted with several of the landlord’s forest tracts; he was a favourite of the police, the gendarmerie and the rulers.” The richest peasants and merchants of several villages of Nizhegorod county disappeared in the autumn and returned to their neighbourhoods only after two or three years.
But in most sections of the country the inner relations among the peasantry were far from reaching such bitterness. The kulaks conducted themselves diplomatically, put on the breaks and resisted, but tried not to set themselves too sharply against the “mir.”  The rank-and-file villager, on his part, jealously watched the kulaks and would not let them unite with the landlords. The struggle between the nobles and the peasantry for influence upon the kulak continued throughout the whole year 1917 in various different forms, from “friendly” pressure to ferocious terrorism.
While the lords of the latifundia were ingratiatingly throwing open to the peasant proprietors the main entrances to the assemblies of the nobility, the small landowners were demonstratively drawing apart from the nobility in order not to perish with them. In politics this found expression in the fact that the landlords, who had belonged before the revolution to the extreme right party, redecorated themselves now in the tints of liberalism, adopting them from memory as a protective colouration, whereas the peasant proprietors, who had often supported the Kadets in the past, now shifted to the left.
A congress of petty proprietors of Perm province, held in September, emphatically distinguished itself from the Moscow Congress of Landed Proprietors at the head of whom stood “counts, dukes and barons.” An owner of 50 dessiatins said:
“The Kadets never worearmyaki and lapti  and therefore will never defend our interests.” Pushing away from the liberals, the labouring proprietor would look around for such “socialists” as would stand for property rights. One of the delegates came out for the social democracy. “The worker?” he said. “Give him land and he will come to the village and stop spitting blood. The social democrats will not take the land away from us.” He was speaking, of course of the Mensheviks. “We will not give away our land to anybody. Those will easily part with it who easily got it, as for example, the landlord, but the peasant had a hard time getting the land.”
In that autumn period the villages were struggling with the kulaks, not throwing them off, but compelling them to adhere to the general movement and defend it against blows from the right. There were even cases where a refusal to participate in a raid was punished by the death of the culprit. The kulak maneuvered while he could, but at the last moment, scratching the back of his head once more, hitched the well-fed horses to the iron-rimmed wagon and went out for his share. It was often the lion’s share. “The well-to-do got the most out of it,” says the Penza peasant, Begishev, “those who had horses and free men.” Savchenko from Orel expressed himself in almost the same words: “The kulaks mostly got the best of it, being well-fed and with something to draw the wood in.”
According to the calculations of Vermenichev, to 4,954 agrarian conflicts with landlords between February and October, there were 324 conflicts with the peasant bourgeoisie. An extraordinarily clear correlation It alone firmly establishes the fact that the peasant movement of 1917 was directed in its social foundations not against capitalism, but against the relics of serfdom. The struggle against kulakism developed only later, in 1918, after the conclusive liquidation of the landlord.
This purely democratic character of the peasant movement, which should, it would seem, have given the official democracy an unconquerable power, did in fact completely reveal its rottenness. If you look at the thing from above, the peasants were wholly led by the Social Revolutionaries, elected them, followed them, almost blended with them. At the May congress of peasant soviets, in the elections to the executive committee, Chernov received 810 votes, Kerensky 804, whereas Lenin got only 20 votes all in all. It was not for nothing that Chernov dubbed himself Rural Minister! But it was not for nothing, either, that the strategy of the villages brusquely parted company with Chernov’s strategy. Their industrial isolation makes the peasants, so determined in struggle with a concrete landlord, impotent before the general landlord incarnate in the state. Hence the organic need of the muzhiks to rely upon some legendary state as against the real one. In olden times they created pretenders, they united round an imagined Golden Edict of the czar, or around the legend of a righteous world, After the February revolution they united round the Social Revolutionary banner “Land and Freedom,” seeking help in it against the liberal landlord who had become a governmental commissar. The Narodnik programme bore the same relation to the real government of Kerensky, as the imagined edict of the czar to the real autocrat.
In the programme of the Social Revolutionaries there was always much that was Utopian. They hoped to create socialism on the basis of a petty trade economy. But the foundation of their programme was democratically revolutionary: to take the land from the landlord. When confronted with the necessity of carrying out its programme, the party got tangled up in a coalition. Not only the landlords rose against the confiscation of the land, but also the Kadet bankers. The banks had loaned against real estate no less than four billion roubles. Intending to dicker with the landlords at the Constituent Assembly regarding prices but end things in a friendly manner, the Social Revolutionaries zealously kept the muzhik away from the land. They went to pieces, therefore, not on the Utopian character of their socialism, but on their democratic inconsistency. It might have taken years to test out their Utopianism. Their betrayal of agrarian democracy became clear in a few months. Under a government of Social Revolutionaries the peasants had to take the road of insurrection in order to carry out the Social Revolutionary programme.
In July, when the government was coming down on the villages with measures of repression, the peasants in hot haste ran for defence to those same Social Revolutionaries. From Pontius the young they appealed for protection to Pilate the old. The month of the greatest weakening of the Bolsheviks in the cities was the month of the greatest expansion of the Social Revolutionaries in the country. As usually happens, especially in a revolutionary epoch, the maximum of organisational scope coincided with the beginning of a political decline. Hiding behind Social Revolutionaries from the blows of a Social Revolutionary government, the peasants steadily lost confidence both in the government and the party. Thus the swelling out of the Social Revolutionary organisations in the villages became fatal to this universal party, which was rebelling at the bottom but restoring order at the top.
In Moscow at a meeting of the Military Organisation on the 30th of July, a delegate from the front, himself a Social Revolutionary, said: Although the peasants still think themselves Social Revolutionaries, a rift has formed between them and the party. The soldiers confirmed this: Under the influence of Social Revolutionary agitation the peasants are still hostile to the Bolsheviks, but in practice they decide the questions of land and power in a Bolshevik manner. The Bolshevik, Povolzhsky, who worked in the Volga region, testifies that the most respected Social Revolutionaries, those who had taken part in the movement of 1905, were more and more feeling themselves pushed aside: “The muzhiks called them ‘old men,’ treating them with external deference, but voting in their own way.” It was the workers and soldiers who had taught the villages to vote and take action “in their own way. It is impossible to weigh the influence of the revolutionary workers upon the peasantry. It was continuous, molecular, penetrating everywhere, and therefore not capable of calculation. A mutual penetration was made easier by the fact that a considerable number of the industrial plants were situated in rural districts. But even the workers of Petrograd, the most European of cities, kept up a close connection with their native villages. Unemployment, increasing during the summer months, and the lockout of the employers, threw back many thousand of workers into the villages. A majority of them became agitators and leaders.
From May to June there were created in Petrograd back-home clubs corresponding to different provinces, counties and even villages. Whole columns in the workers’ press were devoted to announcements of back-home club meetings, where reports about journeys to the villages would be heard, instructions drawn up for delegates, and money collected for agitation. Not long before the uprising, these clubs united round a special central bureau under the leadership of the Bolsheviks. This back-home club movement soon spread to Moscow, Tver, and probably to a number of other industrial cities.
However, in the matter of direct influence upon the village the soldiers were still more important. It was only in the artificial conditions of the front or in the city barrack that the young peasants, overcoming to a certain degree their isolation, would come face to face with problems of nationwide scope. Here too, however, their political dependence made itself felt. While continually falling under the leadership of patriotic and conservative intellectuals and then striving to get free of them, the peasants tried to organise in the army separately from other social groups. The authorities looked unfavourably upon these inclinations, the War Ministry opposed them, the Social Revolutionaries did not welcome them: The soviets of peasants’ deputies took but weak root in the army. Even under the most favourable conditions the peasant is unable to convert his overwhelming quantity into a political quality! Only in the big revolutionary centres under the direct influence of the workers did the soviets of peasant soldiers succeed in developing any important work. Thus between April 1917 and January 1, 1918, the peasant soviet in Petrograd sent 1,395 agitators into the villages with special mandates; and about the same number without mandates. These delegates covered 65 provinces. In Kronstadt back-home clubs were formed among the sailors and soldiers, following the example of the workers, and they supplied their delegates with credentials giving them the “right” to free passage on railroads and steamboats. The private lines accepted these papers without a murmur. Conflicts arose on the government lines.
These official delegates of organisations were after all, however, mere drops in the peasant ocean. An infinitely greater work was accomplished by those hundreds of thousands and millions of soldiers who quit the front and the rear garrisons of their own accord with the strong slogans of mass-meeting speeches ringing in their ears. Those who had sat silent at the front became garrulous at home in the villages. They found no lack of greedy listeners. “Among the peasantry surrounding Moscow,” says Muralov, one of the Moscow Bolsheviks, “there was a tremendous swing to the left ... The villages and towns of Moscow province were swarming with deserters from the front. They were visited also by city proletarians who had not yet cut off their connections with the country.” The dreamy and backward villages of Kaluga province, according to the peasant Naumchenkov – “were waked up by soldiers coming home from the front for various reasons during June and July,” The Nizhegorod commissar reports that “all the lawbreaking and lawlessness is connected with the appearance within the boundaries of the province of deserters, soldiers on furlough, or delegates from the regimental committees.” The overseer of the properties of Princess Bariatinsky of Zolotonoshzky county complains in August of the arbitrary acts of the land committee whose president is a Kronstadt sailor, Gatran. “Soldiers and sailors on furlough,” reports the commissar of Bugulminsk county, “are carrying on an agitation with a view to creating anarchy and a pogrom state of mind.” “In Mglinsk county, in the village of Bielogosh, an arriving sailor on his own authority forbade the preparation and export of firewood and railroad ties from the forest.” And when it was not the soldiers who began the struggle, it was they who finished it. In Nizhegorod county the muzhiks harried a convent, cut the meadow grass, broke down the fences, and bothered the nuns. The mother superior refused to give in, and the militia would carry off the muzhiks and punish them. “So the thing dragged along,” writes the peasant Arbekov, “until the soldiers arrived. The buddies immediately took the bull by the horns The convent was cleaned Out. In Moghiliev province, according to the peasant Bobkov, “the soldiers home from the front were the first leaders in the committee, and directed the expulsion of the landlords.”
The men from the front introduced into the business the heavy determination of people accustomed to handle their fellowmen with rifle and bayonet. Even the soldiers’ wives caught this fighting mood from their husbands. Says the Penza peasant, Begishev: “In September there was a strong movement of soldiers’ wives who spoke at meetings in favour of the raids.” The same thing was observed in other provinces. In the cities, too, the soldiers wives were often the leaven in the lump.
Those cases in which soldiers took the lead in peasant disorders constituted in March, according to Vermenichev’s calculations, 1 per cent, in April, 8 per cent, in September, 12 per cent, and in October, 17 per cent. These figures cannot pretend to be accurate, but they show the general tendency unmistakably. The dying leadership of the Social Revolutionary teachers, town-clerks and functionaries, was giving place to the leadership of soldiers who would stop at nothing.
Parvus, a German Marxian writer prominent in his day, who succeeded in acquiring wealth and losing both his principles and his penetration during the war, has compared the Russian soldiers with the mercenary troopers, robbers and hold-up men of medieval times. For this it is necessary to shut one’s eyes to the fact that in all their lawlessness the Russian soldiers remained merely the executive organ of the greatest agrarian revolution in history.
So long as the movement had not broken completely with legality, the sending of troops into the villages preserved a symbolic character. In practice it was almost the Cossacks alone who could be used as punitive troops. “Four hundred Cossacks were sent into Serdobsky county ... this measure had a tranquilizing effect; the peasants declared that they would await the Constituent Assembly,” says the liberal paper, Russkoe Selo, on the 11th of October. Four hundred Cossacks is certainly an argument in favour of the Constituent Assembly. But there were not enough Cossacks, and moreover they too were uncertain. Meantime the government was oftener and oftener being compelled to “take decisive measures.” During the first four months of the revolution Vermenichev counts 17 cases in which armed forces were sent against the peasants; in July and August, 39 cases; in September and October, 105 cases.
To put down the peasantry by armed force was only to pour oil on the fire. In a majority of cases the soldiers went over to the peasants. A county commissar of Podolsk province reports: “The army organisations and even individual units are deciding social and economic questions, are forcing (?) the peasants to carry out seizures and cut the forest, and at times, in certain localities, they themselves take part in the looting ... The local military units refuse to join in putting down acts of violence. ..” Thus the rural revolt loosened the last bolts of the army. There was not the slightest possibility that in the circumstances of a peasant war headed by the workers, the army would permit itself to be thrown against the insurrection in the cities.
From the workers and soldiers the peasants first learned something new – something older than what the Social Revolutionaries had told them – about the Bolsheviks. The slogans of Lenin, and his name, penetrated the village. The steadily increasing complaints against Bolsheviks were, however, in many cases invented or exaggerated. The landlords hoped in this way to make more sure of getting help. “In Ostroysky county complete anarchy reigns, a consequence of Bolshevik propaganda.” From Ufa province comes the news: “A member of a village committee, Vassiliev, is distributing the programme of the Bolsheviks and openly declaring that the landlords are to be hanged.” In seeking “protection from robbery” the Novgorod landlord, Polonnik, does not forget to add: “The Executive Committees are brimful of Bolsheviks.” That means that they are unfavourable to the landlord. “In August,” remembers a Simbirsk peasant, Zumorin, “workers began to make the rounds of the villages, agitating for the Bolshevik Party and telling about its programme.” An investigator of Sebezh county tells about the arrival from Petrograd of a weaver Tatiana Mikhailova, 26 years old, who “called on the people of her village to overthrow the Provisional Government, and praised the tactics of Lenin.” In Smalensk province towards the end of August, according to the peasant Kotov, “We began to interest ourselves in Lenin, began to listen to the voice of Lenin ...” In the village zemstvo, however, they were still electing an immense majority of Social Revolutionaries.
The Bolshevik Party was trying to get closer to the peasant. On the 10th of September Nevsky demanded that the Petrograd committee undertake the publication of a peasant newspaper: “We must fix things so that we shall not have the experience of the French Commune, where the peasantry did not understand Paris and Paris did not understand the peasantry.” The newspaper, Byednotá, soon came out. But even so, the purely party work among the peasants remained insignificant. The strength of the Bolshevik Party lay not in technical resources, not in machinery, but in a correct policy. As air currents carry seeds, the whirlwinds of the revolution scattered the ideas of Lenin.
“By September,” remembers a Tver peasant, Vorobiev, “not only the soldiers, but the poor peasants themselves were oftener and more boldly beginning to come out at meetings in defence of the Bolsheviks ...” This is confirmed by the Simbirsk peasant, Zumorin: “Among the poor and some of the middle peasants the name of Lenin was on everybody’s lips; the talk was only of Lenin.” A Novgorod peasant, Grigoriev, tells how a Social Revolutionary in the village called the Bolsheviks “usurpers” and “traitors” and how the muzhiks thundered: “Down with the dog! Pound him with rock! Don’t tell us any more fairy stories. Where is the land? That’s enough from you! Give us the Bolsheviks!” It is possible, by the way, that this episode – and there were many like it – derives from the post-October period. Facts stand strong in a peasant’s memory but his chronology is weak.
The soldier Chinenov, who came back to his home in Orel province with a trunkful of Bolshevik literature, had not been welcomed by the home village. It’s probably German gold, they said. But in October “the village nucleus has 700 members and many rifles, and always comes out in defence of the Soviet power.” The Bolshevik Vrachev tells how the peasants of the purely agricultural province of Voronezh “woke up from the effects of the Social Revolutionary fumes and began to take an interest in our party. Thanks to which we already had a number of village and township locals and subscribers to our papers, and received many good fellows in the tiny headquarters of our committee.” In Smolensk province, according to the recollections of Ivanov, “Bolsheviks were very rare in the villages. There were very few of them in the counties. There were no Bolshevik papers. Leaflets were very rarely given out ... And nevertheless the nearer it came to October, the more the villages swung over to the Bolsheviks.”
“In those counties where there was a Bolshevik influence in the Soviet before October,” writes Ivanov again, “the element of raids upon landlords’ estates either did not appear, or appeared only to a small extent.” In this respect, however, it was not the same everywhere. “The Bolshevik demand for the transfer of land to the peasants,” says, for example, Tadeush, “was taken up with extraordinary rapidity by the mass of the peasants of Moghiliev county, who laid waste the estates, in some cases burning them, and seized the harvests and the forest.” In essence there is no contradiction between the two testimonies. The general agitation of the Bolsheviks undoubtedly nourished the civil war in the country. But wherever the Bolsheviks had succeeded in putting down firm roots, they naturally tried, without weakening the assault of the peasants, to regulate its forms and decrease the amount of destruction.
The land question did not stand alone. The peasant suffered especially during the last period of the war, both as seller and buyer. Grain was taken from him at a fixed price, and the products of industry were becoming more and more unattainable. The problem of economic correlation between the country and the city, destined subsequently under the name of the “scissors” to become the central problem of Soviet economy, was already showing its threatening face. The Bolsheviks were saying to the peasants: The soviets must seize the power, give you the land, end the war, demobilise industry, establish workers’ control of production, and regulate the price relations between industrial and agricultural products. However summary this answer may have been, it did indicate the road. “The partition wall between us and the peasantry,” said Trotsky on the 10th of October at a conference of factory committees, “is the little counsellors of Avksentiev. We must break through this wall. We must explain to the village that all the attempts of the worker to help the peasant by supplying the village with agricultural implements will give no result until workers’ control of organised production is established.” The conference issued a manifesto to the peasants in this sense.
The Petrograd workers created at the factories in those days special commissions which would assemble metals, damaged parts and fragments for the use of a special centre called “Worker to Peasant.” This scrap-iron was used for making the simplest agricultural implements and reserve parts. That first planned entry of the workers into the process of production – still tiny in scope and with agitational aims prevailing over economics – nevertheless opened out a prospect for the near future. Frightened at this entrance of the Bolsheviks into the forbidden sphere of the village, the peasant Executive Committee made an attempt to get hold of the new enterprise. But the decrepit Compromisers were no longer in any condition to compete with the Bolsheviks on the city arena when the ground was already slipping from under their feet in the villages.
The echoes of the Bolshevik agitation “so aroused the peasant poor,” writes Vorobiev, the Tver peasant, “that we may definitely say: If October had not come in October it would have come in November.” This colourful description of the political strength of Bolshevism does not contradict the fact of its organisational weakness. Only through such striking disproportions does a revolution make its way. It is for this very reason, to tell the truth, that its movement cannot be forced into the framework of formal democracy. To accomplish the agrarian revolution, whether in October or November, the peasantry had no other course but to make use of the unravelling web of that same Social Revolutionary Party. Its left elements were hastily and unsystematically forming a group under the pressure of the peasant revolt – following the Bolsheviks and competing with them. During the coming months the political shift of the peasantry will take place chiefly under the glossy banner of the Left Social Revolutionaries. This ephemeral party will become a reflected and unstable form of rural Bolshevism, a temporary bridge from the peasant war to the proletarian revolution.
The agrarian revolution had to have its own local institutions. How did they look? There existed several types of organisation in the village: state institutions such as the executive committee of the township, the land and food committees; social institutions like the soviets; purely political institutions like the parties; and finally organs of self-government exemplified in the town zemstvos. The peasant soviets had as yet developed only on a province, or to some extent a county scale. There were few town soviets. The town zemstvos had been slow to take root. The land and executive committees, on the other hand, although state organs in design, became – strange as it may seem at a first glance – the organs of the peasant revolution.
The head land committee, consisting of governmental functionaries, landlords, professors, scientific agriculturists, Social Revolutionary politicians and an admixture of dubious peasants, became in essence the main brake of the agrarian revolution. The province committees never ceased to be the conducting wires of the governmental policy. The county committees oscillated between the peasants and the men higher up. The town committees, however – elected by the peasants and working right there before the eyes of the village – became the instruments of the agrarian movement. The circumstance that the members of these committees usually registered as Social Revolutionaries made no difference. They kept step with the peasant’s hut and not the lord’s manor. The peasants especially treasured the state character of their land committees, seeing in this a sort of patent-right to civil war.
“The peasants say that they recognise nothing but the town committee,” complains one of the chiefs of militia in Saransky county as early as May. “All the county and city committees, they say, work for the landlords.” According to a Nizhegorod commissar, “the attempts of certain town committees to oppose the independent action of the peasants almost always ends in failure and brings about a change of membership of the committee.” According to Denissov, a peasant from Pskov, “the committees were always on the side of the peasants’ movement against the landlord because the most revolutionary part of the peasantry and soldiers from the front were elected to them.”
The county, and more especially the province committees were led by the functionary “intelligentsia,” which was trying to keep up peaceful relations with the landlord. “The peasants saw,” writes the Moscow peasant, Yurkov, “that this was the same coat only inside out, the same power but with another name.” “An effort is under way,” reports the Kurksk commissar, “... to get new elections to the county committees, which are invariably carrying out the directions of the Provisional Government.” It was very hard, however, for the peasants to get into the county committees. The Social Revolutionaries kept hold of the political ties between the villages and townships, and the peasants were thus compelled to act through a party whose chief mission consisted of turning the old coat inside out.
The coolness of the peasantry toward the March soviets, astonishing at first glance, had as a matter of fact very deep causes. The soviet was not a special organisation like the land committee, but a universal organ of the revolution. Now in the sphere of general politics the peasant cannot take a step without leadership. The only question is, where is it to come from. The provincial and county peasant soviets were created on the initiative, and to a considerable extent at the expense, of the Co-operatives, not as organs of a peasant revolution but as organs of a conservative guardianship over the peasants. The villagers tolerated these Right Social Revolutionary soviets standing above them as a shield against the authorities. But at home, among themselves, they preferred the land committees.
In order to prevent the village from shutting itself up in a circle of “purely peasant interests,” the government made haste to create democratic zemstvos. That alone was enough to put the muzhik on his guard. It was frequently necessary to enforce the elections. “There were cases of lawlessness,” reports the Penza commissar, “resulting in a break-up of the elections.” In Minsk province the peasants arrested the president of the electoral commission of the town, Prince Drutskoi-Liubetskoi, accusing him of tampering with the lists. It was not easy for the muzhiks to come to an agreement with him about the democratic solution of their age-old quarrel. The county commissar of Bugulminsk reported: “The elections to the town zemstvos throughout the county have not gone quite according to plan ... The members of the electorate are exclusively peasants. There is a noticeable estrangement from the local intelligentsia, especially from the landowners.” In this form the zemstvo was but little different from the committee. “The attitude of the peasant masses toward the intelligentsia, and especially the landowners.” complains the Minsk county commissar, “is adverse.” We read in a Moghiliev newspaper of September 23: “Cultural work in the country is accompanied with a certain risk, unless one categorically promises to cooperate toward the immediate transfer of all the land to the peasants.” Where agreement and even intercourse between the fundamental classes of the population becomes impossible, the ground for democratic institutions disappears. The still-birth of the town zemstvos unmistakably foretold the collapse of the Constituent Assembly.
“The local peasantry,” reports the Nizhegorod commissar, “have got a fixed opinion that all civil laws have lost their force, and that all legal relations ought now to be regulated by peasant organisations.” Getting control of the militia in certain localities, the town committees would issue local laws, establish rents, regulate wages, put their own overseers on estates, take over the land, the crops, the woods, the forests, the tools, take the machinery away from the landlords, and carry out searches and arrests. The voice of centuries and the fresh experience of the revolution both said to the muzhik that the question of land is a question of power. The agrarian revolution needed the organs of a peasant dictatorship. The muzhik did not yet know this Latin word, but the muzhik knew what he wanted. That “anarchy” of which the landlords, liberal commissars, and compromise politicians complained, was in reality the first stage of the revolutionary dictatorship In the village.
The necessity of creating special, purely peasant organs of land revolution in the localities had been defended by Lenin during the events of 1905-6. “The peasant revolutionary committees,” he argued at the party congress in Stockholm, “present the sole road along which the peasant movement can travel.” The muzhiks had not read Lenin, but Lenin knew how to read the minds of the muzhiks.
The villages changed their attitude to the soviets only in the fall, when the soviets themselves changed their political course. The Bolshevik and Left Social Revolutionary soviets in the county or provincial city now no longer held back the peasants, but on the contrary pushed them forward. Whereas during the first months the villages had looked to the compromisist soviets for a legal covering, only to come later into hostile conflict with them, now they first began to find in the revolutionary soviets a real leadership. The Saratov peasants wrote in September: “The power throughout all Russia ought to go ... to the Soviets of Workers, Peasants and Soldiers’ Deputies. That will be safer.” Only in the fall did the peasantry begin to join their land programme to the slogan of Power to the Soviets. But here, too, they did not know by whom or how these soviets were to be led.
Agrarian disturbances in Russia had their great tradition, their simple but clear programme, their local martyrs and heroes. The colossal experience of 1905 had not passed without leaving its trace in the villages. And to this we must add the work of the sectarian ideas which had taken hold of millions of peasants. “I knew many peasants,” writes a well-informed author, “who accepted ... the October revolution as the direct realisation of their religious hopes.” Of all the peasant revolts known to history the movement of the Russian peasantry in 1917 was undoubtedly in the highest degree fertilised by political ideas. If nevertheless it proved incapable of creating an independent leadership and taking the power in its own hands, the causes of this are to be found in the organic nature of an isolated, petty and routine industry. While sucking all the juice out of the muzhik, his economic position did not give him in return the ability to generalise.
The political freedom of a peasant means in practice the ability to choose between different city parishes. But even this choice is not made a priori. The peasantry pushed the Bolsheviks toward power with their revolt. But only after conquering the power could the Bolsheviks win over the peasantry, converting their agrarian revolution into the laws of a workers’ state.
A group of investigators under the guidance of Yakovlev have made an extremely valuable classification of material, characterising the evolution of the agrarian movement from February to October. Designating the number of disorganised actions in each month as 100, these investigators have estimated that there were in April, 33 organised conflicts; in June, 86; in July, 120. July was the moment of highest success of the Social Revolutionary organisations in the country. In August for one hundred disorganised conflicts there were only 62 organised, and in October, 14. From these figures – wonderfully instructive, although of qualified significance – Yakovlev draws a totally unexpected conclusion. “Whereas up to August,” he says, “the movement had grown steadily more organised; in the fall it acquired a more and more ‘spontaneous’  character.” Another investigator, Vermenichev, arrives at the same formula: “The lowering of the figure of organised movements in the period of the pre-October waves, testifies to the spontaneousness of the movements of those months.” If the spontaneous is contrasted to the conscious, as blindness to eyesight – and this is the only scientific contrast – then we must come to the conclusion that the consciousness of the peasant movement increased up to August, and then began to fall rapidly enough to disappear completely at the moment of the October insurrection. But this our investigators obviously did not wish to say. Taking a somewhat reflective attitude to the question, it is not difficult to understand, for example, that the peasant elections to the Constituent Assembly, in spite of their externally “organised” character, were incomparably more “spontaneous” – that is, thoughtless, sheeplike, blind – than the “disorganised” peasant campaigns agaoinst the landlord, where each peasant knew quite well what he wanted.
In the autumn crisis the peasants did not abandon conscious action of spontaneousness, but abandoned compromisist leadership for the civil war. the decline in organisation was really a superficial feature; the compromisist organisation fell away, but what was left was by no means a vacant space. The peasants came out on the new road under the direct leadership of the most revolutionary elements, the soldiers, sailors and workers. In entering upon decisive activities the peasants would quite often call a mass-meeting, and even take pains that the resolution adopted should be signed by all those living in the same village. “In the autumn period of the peasant movement with its raiding forms,” writes a third investigator, Shestakov, “what oftenest appears upon the scene is the ‘old peasant assembly ...’ By means of the assembly the peasants divide the appropriated goods, through the assembly they conduct negotiations with the landlord and overseers, with the county commissars and with punitive expeditions of all kinds.”
The question why the town committees, which have led the peasants right up to the civil war, now disappear from the scene, finds no direct answer in these materials. But the explanation comes of itself. A revolution very quickly wears out its organs and implements. Owing to the mere fact that the land committees had been conducting semi-peaceful activities, they were bound to seem of little use for direct assaults. And this general cause is supplemented by particular ones no less weighty. In taking the road of open war with the landlord, the peasants knew too well what awaited them in case of defeat. A number of the land committees even without that were under Kereasky’s lock and key. To scatter the responsibility became a tactical need. The “mir” offered the most expedient form for this. The customary mutual mistrust of the peasants undoubtedly worked in the same direction. It was a question now of the direct seizure and division of the landlords’ goods; each wanted to take part in this himself, not entrusting his rights to anybody. Thus the highest tension of the struggle led to a temporary retirement of the representative organs in favour of primitive peasant democracy in the form of the assembly and the communal decree.
This crude mistake in defining the character of the peasant movement may seem especially surprising from the pen of Bolshevik investigators. But we must not forget that these are Bolsheviks of the new mould. The bureaucratisation of thought has inevitably led to an overvaluing of those forms of organisation which, were imposed upon the peasants from above, an undervaluing of those which the peasants themselves assumed. The educated functionary, following the liberal professor, looks upon social processes from the point of view of administration. In his position as People’s Commissar of Agriculture, Yakovlev subsequently showed the same summary bureaucratic mode of approach to the peasantry, but in an infinitely broader and more responsible sphere – that namely of introducing “complete collectivisation,” Theoretic superficiality takes a cruel revenge when it comes to a practical action on a large scale!
But we are still a good thirteen years before the mistakes of complete collectivisation. It is now only a question of the expropriation of the landed estates. 134,000 landlords are still trembling for their 18 million dessiatins. Most threatened is the situation of those on the summit, the 30,000 lords of old Russia who own 70 million dessiatins – 2,000 on the average per person. A lord, Boborykin, writes to the Chamberlain, Rodzianko: “I am a landlord, and somehow it won’t fit into my head that I am to be deprived of my land, and that, too, for a most improbable purpose – for an experimental test of socialistic teachings.” But it is the task of revolution to accomplish just those things which will not fit into the heads of the ruling class.
The more far-sighted landlords cannot help realising, however, that they will not be able to keep their estates. They are no longer even trying to. The sooner we get rid of our land, they are saying, the better. The Constituent Assembly presents itself to them primarily as a vast clearing-house where the state will recompense them not only for the land, but also for their anxieties.
The peasant landowners adhered to this programme of theirs on the left. They were not unwilling to have an end of the parasitical nobility, but they were afraid of unsettling the conception of landed property. The state is rich enough, they declared at their meetings, to pay the landlords something like 12 billion roubles. In their quality of “peasants” they were counting on being able to make use of these noble estates, once they had been paid for by the people, on favourable terms.
The proprietors understood that the extent of the indemnity was a political magnitude to be determined by the correlation of forces at the moment of payment. Up to the end of August there remained a hope that the Constituent Assembly, convoked á la Kornilov, would follow a line of agrarian reform midway between Rodzianko and Miliukov. The collapse of Kornilov meant that the possessing classes had lost the game.
During September and October the possessing classes were awaiting the outcome as a hopelessly sick man awaits death. Autumn with muzhiks is the time for politics. The fields are mowed, illusions are scattered, patience is exhausted. Time to finish things up The movement now overflows its banks, invades all districts, wipes out local peculiarities, draws in all the strata of the villages, washes away all considerations of law and prudence, becomes aggressive, fierce, furious, a raging thing, arms itself with steel and fire, revolvers and hand-grenades, demolishes and burns up the manorial dwellings, drives out the landlords, cleanses the earth and in some places waters it with blood.
Gone are the nests of the gentility celebrated by Pushkin, Turgeniev and Tolstoi. The old Russia has gone up in smoke. The liberal press is a collection of groans and outcries about the destruction of English gardens, of paintings from the brushes of serfs, of patrimonial libraries, the parthenons of Tomboy, the riding horses, the ancient engravings, the breeding bulls. Bourgeois historians have tried to put the responsibility upon the Bolsheviks for the “vandalism” of the peasant’s mode of settling accounts with the “culture” of his lords. In reality the Russian muzhik was completing a business entered upon many centuries before the Bolsheviks appeared in the world. He was fulfilling his progressive historic task with the only means at his disposal. With revolutionary barbarism he was wiping out the barbarism of the middle ages. Moreover, neither he himself, nor his grandfather, nor his great grandfather before him ever saw any mercy or indulgence!
When the feudal landlords got the best of the Jacquerie four and a half centuries before the liberation of the French peasants, a pious monk wrote in his chronicle: “They did so much evil to the country that there was no need of the coming of the English to destroy the kingdom; these never could have done what was done by the nobles of France.” Only the bourgeoisie – in May 1871 – proved able to exceed the French nobles in ferocity. The Russian peasants – thanks to the leadership of the workers, and the Russian workers – thanks to the support of the peasants, avoided learning this twofold lesson from the defenders of culture and humanity.
The inter-relations between the fundamental classes of Russia at large were reproduced in the village. Just as the workers and soldiers went into a fight with the monarchy contrary to the plans of the bourgeoisie, so the peasant poor rose boldest of all against the landlord, not heeding the warnings of the kulak. Just as the Compromisers believed that the revolution would stand firmly on its feet only from the moment it was recognized by Miliukov, so the middle peasants, glancing round to right and left, imagined that the signature of the kulak would legitimise the seizures. And finally, somewhat as the bourgeoisie, although hostile to the revolution, did not hesitate to appropriate the power, so the kulaks, after resisting the raids, did not refuse to enjoy their fruits. The power did not remain long in the hands of the bourgeoisie, nor the landlord’s chattels in the hands of the kulaks – for like reasons.
The strength of the agrarian-democratic and essentially bourgeois revolution was manifested in the fact that it overcame for a time the class contradictions of the village: the farm hand helped the kulak in raiding the landlord. The 17th. 18th and 19th centuries of Russian history climbed up on the shoulders of the 20th, and bent it to the ground. The weakness of this belated bourgeois revolution was manifested in the fact that the peasant war did not urge the bourgeois revolutionists forward, but threw them back conclusively into the camp of reaction. Tseretelli, the hard-labour convict of yesterday, defended the estates of the landlords against anarchy! The peasant revolution, thus rejected by the bourgeoisie, joined hands with the industrial proletariat. In this way the 20th century not only got free of those past centuries hanging upon it, but climbed up on their shoulders to a new historic level. In order that the peasant might clear and fence his land, the worker had to stand at the head of the state: that is the simplest formula for the October revolution.
1. Peasants who had left the commune and taken private land under Stolypin’s law of November 9, 1906. – Trans.
2. This word, applied to the village as a commune, literally means “the world” – that is, everybody. – Trans.
3. Armyaki is a home-made woollen coat, lapti are shoes made out of woven strips of bark. – Trans.
4. The Russian word translated “spontaneous” means literally elemental, and is commonly contrasted in revolutionary literature to class-conscious movements led by an organisation with a theory and programme. – Trans.
Last updated on: 125 December 2014