Russian Revolution: IV The Fate of the Peasantry
As early as August 1918, the Socialist Standard, armed with only a minimum of precise information on events in Russia during the previous ten months, and the insight of Marxist analysis, published a prophetic article entitled ‘The Revolution in Russia – Where It Fails’. There it was pointed out that
Leaving aside the subsidiary differences in the economic position of the different provinces, the one great fact common to most of the peasantry is their desire to be rid of the burden of the tax they have to pay for their land, whether to the local Lord or to the Government, so that they may gain a livelihood from their holdings. This applies to both the individual and the group holders. Hence the peasants’ movements and demands are not for social ownership, but merely for the abolition of the tax burden and their right to take up new land as the population increases. In other words, they only wish to free the old system of individual or group cultivation and management from governmental taxes and control.
In other words, the Russian peasantry possessed the political ideology of peasants everywhere: they wanted more land. This ideal embraced the original Narodnik demand for the Black Repartition: an economic system in which the land is returned from the feudal aristocracy to the toiling peasant. It was this, and not socialism, that the vast mass of the Russian population aspired to.
After the February Revolution the Provisional Government set up a Main Land Committee and Local Land Committees to ‘prepare for’a major land reform after the election of the Constituent Assembly. Liberal reformers were optimistic: the peasantry were typically cynical about the prospect of legislative justice and the poorer peasants began immediately to seize land. The Bolsheviks were the only party to encourage this form of illegal appropriation, thus adding to their reputation as.a party which would advocate any policy in the quest for power. In May 1917, at the All-Russian Congress of Peasant Deputies, Lenin advocated that the poor peasants should form separate factions in all peasant organisations — this was an attempt to unite the poor peasants with the Bolshevik workers whose interests Lenin believed to be the same. But the peasantry as a whole still supported their own party, the Social Revolutionaries, rather than the Bolsheviks. In August 1917 the journal of the All-Russian Peasants’ Congress, which was controlled by the SRs, published a model land decree compiled from 242 demands submitted by delegates to the first Congress in May. The model decree proposed expropriation of the land by the peasantry, the prohibition of hired labour, the prohibition of the buying and selling of land, and the fair distribution of land to all peasants. This demand for agrarian justice was straight out of the Narodnik fantasies of the nineteenth century and was welcomed by the mass of the politically ignorant peasantry. Realising its popularity, the policy was adopted by the Bolsheviks as their official agrarian programme. The Bolsheviks stole the SR land policy; the peasants supported them in October in return for the promise that they would at last become unrestricted landlords; on 26 October 1917 the Land Decree was declared law.
Did the enactment of the Black Repartition bring contentment to the peasants? An investigation carried out by Russian statisticians in 1919 showed that as far as the distribution of land and livestock after 1917 was concerned there was “a withering away of the two extremes and an inflation of the centre”. (A.V. Peshekonov)
Peasants with more than 8 dessyatine (or 21.6 acres) of land had fallen from 7.9 per cent to 3.1 per cent of the total peasant population: the proportion of landless peasants had fallen from 11.4 per cent to 6.5 per cent. Most peasants did not receive substantial benefits from the redistribution of land after the Bolshevik revolution and. in the light of the political consequences of the new regime, the benefits gained were nullified by the intensified pressures which were put upon the peasantry. In the words of one historian,
. . . the long-awaited ‘black repartition’ did not bring the average peasant householder much additional wealth. If anything, it may be said to have simply spread the prevailing misery more widely than before. (John Keep. The Russian Revolution, chap. 30)
The peasants backed the Bolsheviks in 1917, but their loyalty was soon disappointed. The food shortages in the city led the Bolsheviks to form detachments of workers and poor peasants to confiscate grain from the peasant farmers. Many of the so-called kulaks destroyed the grain or ate it themselves rather than hand it over to the state; many of them died in order to.defend what a few months earlier the Land Decree had declared to be theirs.
The Bolshevik leaders, faced with starvation in the city and resistance in the countryside, began to learn what is meant by a revolution which is dependent upon politically unconscious masses. They set up committees of poor peasants (kombedy) in which they relied upon the support of those peasants with the least stake in the land to wage a battle for the grain produced by the slightly wealthier peasants. The Bolshevik government began to set up large-scale farms on many of the confiscated estates and established a central authority (Narkomzen) to administer them. How distant was this from the peasant ideal of unrestricted, individual land ownership. Rather than abolish taxation of the peasants, the new regime introduced a tax in kind in October 1918 which was to be supplementary to the grain requisition policy already in operation.
Having supported Lenin on the basis of his promises the peasants, like the wage workers in the cities, ended up as the tools of state capitalism. In order to retain control the new regime had to dragoon and exploit them. Engels, writing of The Peasant War in Germany, explained what must happen if a party standing for the interest of one class takes power and is forced to depend upon another class:
The worst that can befall the leader of an extremist party is to be compelled to take over the government at a time when the moment is not yet ripe for the rule of the class he represents . . . He finds himself necessarily in an insoluble political dilemma: what he can do is in conflict with his entire previous attitudes, his principles, and the immediate interest of his parts: what he is supposed to do cannot be done . . . he is compelled to represent not his party, his class, but the class for the rule of which the movement happens to be right. For the sake of that movement he must act for the interests of an alien class, and must feed his own class with phrases and promises along with the assertion that the interests of that alien class are really their own. He who gets himself in that false position is irredeemably lost.