Russian communist supporters behind a flag depicting Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin, rallying on the anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Stavropol, November 7, 2010.
Eduard Korniyenko/ Reuters

WHAT is there new in the peasant policy of the Soviet Government? The history of the Soviet Government's method of dealing with the peasants is a brilliant illustration of the truth of the Latin proverb, "fata volentem ducunt, nolentem trahunt," that is, "fate--or better still life--leads those who do not resist it, and forcibly drags along those who try to oppose it."

Let us examine the facts. Until 1917 the attitude toward the peasant adopted by the Bolshevik fraction of the Socialist party was definite, and one befitting orthodox Marxists. The Bolshevik program embodied the conceptions of a commonplace variety of Marxism, according to which the peasantry were, first and last, a class of petty bourgeoisie, alien and antagonistic not only to Socialist ideals but to all social progress. The proletariat were the sole organ of the Socialist ideal, that is to say of the future. Accordingly the party was built up on exclusively proletarian lines. Its program, so far as the peasant was concerned, was restricted to political demands; for any economic improvement of his condition was in their eyes not only without object but even objectionable. Theoretically the peasants, being established on the land and possessing some means for its exploitation, would have to go through a process of differentiation in the course of which the petty holders among them would be absorbed by the larger ones. In conformity with this theory of common Marxism, something analogous to the evolution of industry was due to take place in the villages. Strengthening the petty peasant would mean hampering the inevitable social progress. The only thing the Socialist party could do for the peasant--said the Bolsheviks--was to help organize the paid agricultural laborers. Such was the Marxist doctrine professed by the Bolsheviks in its purest form.

For twenty years and more the Bolsheviks had been waging a tireless theoretical battle against another Russian Socialist party, the Socialist-Revolutionaries, whose chief distinction from the Bolsheviks and from the Marxists in general was this: The Socialist-Revolutionaries in their theoretical conceptions made no distinction between the proletariat and the peasantry; they considered both united in one laboring class, and argued that the socialist program and the socialist movement must be the common cause of these two armies of labor. This theoretical discussion between the Socialist-Revolutionaries and the Bolsheviks went on incessantly.

In 1905 the Bolsheviks were forced to make large concessions in this question. The peasantry, of whom they had thought up to this time as a purely reactionary class socially as well as politically, showed that they were a powerful revolutionary force. Indeed, the movement of 1905-6 which compelled the early concessions of the Government,--"the first revolution," the manifesto of October 17th, the Duma,--was largely a peasant movement. The Bolsheviks grasped this and made a change in their tactics in regard to the peasants, but only in their tactics, not in their program. To be sure, they officially proclaimed the slogan "nationalization of land," but they did not conceal that this slogan to them was only a tactical move, by which they wanted to lead the peasant to political revolution. As before, they deemed the paid laborers, the proletariat, to be the only class able to carry out a Socialist revolution. The peasant in revolt, demanding land, was to them at this historic moment only a traveling companion on the road to revolution.

A great gulf separated the Bolsheviks from the Socialist-Revolutionaries who proclaimed as their watchword "the socialization of the land." To the Socialist-Revolutionaries, "the socialization of the land" was a specific variety of nationalization. The difference consisted in this: while in "nationalization" the State becomes the legal owner of the land, in socialization the people acquire the supreme right to dispose of all the nationalized land, in accordance with a special legislative provision. Besides, the Socialist-Revolutionaries conceived of "the socialization of the land" as a far-reaching social reform creating favorable conditions for socialization and the introduction of the cooperative principle in all the other branches of industry, agriculture and city affairs.

Then came the year 1917. Contrary to the ordinary conception, the real revolution at that time was not made in the cities, but in the villages. The essential content of the Russian revolution was the tremendous, elemental process which took place among the peasants and resulted in the disruption of the landed estates, the expulsion of the landed proprietors, most of them belonging to the nobility, from their villages, and the forcible appropriation of all private and state lands by the peasants. The thing that many had foreseen as inevitable, namely the satisfaction of the peasant's age-long thirst for the land, took place in an elemental way. The ideas of the Socialist-Revolutionaries on this point were identical with those of the peasants--"the land must be excepted from the exchange of goods," as they put it, and "the land is the Lord's own, or nobodv's, it's a sin to buy it and a sin to sell it," as the peasant was wont to say. Consequently, they hoped to have this wholesale seizure legalized in the Constituent Assembly by a fundamental law on the socialization of the land. This was to be worked out by deputies from all the people in the highest legislative and administrative organ of the country, and the rules thus established would regulate the use of land throughout the country, converting the peasant's primitive conviction of his right into a law obligatory for all citizens.

History, however, disposed differently. Power was seized by the Bolshevist party and the Constituent Assembly was dissolved. But in 1917, as in 1905, the Bolsheviks grasped correctly the significance of what had happened. They saw that the only way for them to keep in power and to strengthen themselves in it, was by staying on the crest of the revolutionary wave. With the greatest haste--literally on the morrow of their coup d'etat--they promulgated a decree which contained a project of socialization of the land previously prepared, but not yet definitely worked out, by the Socialist-Revolutionaries. This decree did not regulate the agrarian question on a country-wide scale, but simply sanctioned and ratified the wholesale seizure and partition of land already carried out by the peasants. By this means the Bolsheviks achieved their purpose. They neutralized the peasant politically. He was satisfied in the essential thing, his age-long craving for the land, and therefore he remained indifferent to the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly to which he had sent an overwhelming majority of deputies, indifferent also to the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks, although it meant a power entirely alien to him.

The Bolsheviks themselves never attempted to conceal the true character of the peasant policy they adopted in the first days after their coup d'etat. No less a person than Lenin himself several times publicly acknowledged in speaking and writing that the Bolsheviks had taken their decree on the socialization of land from the Socialist-Revolutionaries. "Nine-tenths of the peasants," he wrote, "have gone over to our side within a few weeks because we adopted an agrarian program that was not our own but that of the Socialist-Revolutionaries, and put it into execution. Our victory consisted precisely in the carrying out of the Socialist-Revolutionary program. That is why it was so easy." "Indeed, why shouldn't we borrow from the Social-Revolutionists whatever was really good?" he used to say with a cunning smile. In doing so he never denied that to the Bolsheviks it was but a means of attracting the peasant or at least neutralizing him politically. As before, it was a matter of tactics, not of the program. As far as the theory was concerned, the proletariat still kept complete hegemony, the Bolsheviks kept assuring themselves and others that what they were bringing into being was "the dictatorship of the proletariat."

What was the further peasant policy of the Soviet Government?

At first, it bore a perfectly consistent and typical Marxist character. All the Bolsheviks wanted from the peasant was for him to help aggravate the class struggle. For this purpose the famous "Committees of the Destitute" were created all over the country, made up of needy peasants and farm-laborers. Usually these committees included as instructors typical city proletarians professing Bolshevism. The Committees of the Destitute had but one purpose, namely, to sequestrate for the benefit of the city population and city proletariat the grain produced by the more well-to-do peasants, whom they contemptuously called kulaki ("fists," the old name for the village usurer). Lenin called this process "prying bread out of the villages with bayonettes." The result could be easily foreseen--civil war on a vast scale throughout the country. The aim of Lenin's teaching was achieved. Trotsky, his faithful pupil, used to say at that time, "Bolshevism is organized civil war." It lasted for three whole years over the entire boundless expanse of Russia. It-brought ruin, curtailment of areas under cultivation, the nightmare of the famine of 1920-21, and never-ceasing peasant uprisings which the Soviet Government drowned in rivers of blood by means of its well organized police forces. This could not continue indefinitely, for even the fanatics of civil war had their eyes opened, especially after such threatening events as the wholesale peasant revolt in the government of Tambov and the sailors' revolt in Kronstadt in the spring of 1921.

The peasant policy of the Bolsheviks had to be revised. This was done by Lenin who, with his characteristic crude frankness, explained the reasons for such a revision. In April, 1921, he made his famous speech on the product tax, thereby initiating the New Economic Policy. In this speech he pointed out directly --and others did it after him--that peasant unrest and the Kronstadt revolt made it imperative "to take immediate and decisive steps to better the condition of the peasant," and to abandon "the system of war-time Communism by which we practically took from the peasant all his surplus, and sometimes what was not his surplus but part of his necessary subsistence."

Then began the period of the so-called New Economic Policy, which so far as the peasant was concerned took the less onerous form of a product tax. The Soviet Government had at last divined that if you want to get eggs you must not kill the hen that lays them. The Committees of the Destitute were relegated to the background. The Government began to look toward the so-called middle peasant. There was talk about the union of the indigent and of the middle peasant. These two elements should combine together and with the city proletariat, of course under the guidance of the Communist Party, in order to combat the power of capital in town and village. The wealthier peasants, the kulaki, remained the enemy to be annihilated by the joint effort of all Communists.

The period of war-time Communism passed definitely away; the domestic life of Russia fortunately ceased to be disturbed by foolish foreign interventions; and attention was turned first and foremost to the economic reconstruction of the huge country that had been ruined first by the World War, then by a still more devastating civil war. Gradually one clear and simple thought came to dominate the consciousness of the country: the destinies of Russia depended entirely on the reconstruction of peasant industry.

After what the country has been through, the specific gravity of the peasantry has increased in proportion enormously. This fact penetrated the Bolshevik consciousness with difficulty, but it could not help penetrating at last.

And now we are witnessing a great object lesson. Apparently forgetting all of their Marxist dogma, the responsible Soviet leaders are beginning to reiterate the ABC of an economic policy which, from their lips, sounds as if it were a new gospel. Intensification of village production is the aim to which every effort of the Soviet reconstruction campaign must be bent. The Government must by all means help increase the welfare of the diligent, prosperous peasant. It is necessary to abandon the careless and demagogic persecution of the kulaki. The state can no longer commit itself to the village paupers as was done during the period of war-time Communism, because that would be a kind of "defeatism in production." Also, peasant agriculture cannot get along without hired labor. Such are the orations uttered nowadays by the most responsible Soviet statesmen, men like Smirnov, the Commissar for Agriculture (Pravda, April 5 and 7); Kamenev (Izvestia, April 14); Rykov, the President of the Council of People's Commissars (Izvestia, April 30), and many others.

These pronouncements are a complete refutation of the former Bolshevist peasant policy which was directed exclusively to the instigation of class war in the villages. Instead of staking on the pauper, the Government now stakes, if not on the kulak, at least on the well-to-do peasant. If the speeches that Kamenev Rykov and Smirnov make nowadays had been made a few years ago, the culprits would have been brought before the revolutionary tribunal and dealt with as counter-revolutionists and enemies of the Soviet Government. Not long ago a well-to-do, prosperous peasantry, and the accumulation of capital in the villages, would have appeared as deadly sin in the eyes of the Marxist Bolsheviks. Today their leaders openly agitate in favor of these things in the press and at every conference and congress.

More than that, these appeals do not remain mere propaganda. They are being made the cornerstone of a practical peasant policy. On April 18 the Soviet of People's Commissars decreed "Provisional rules for the hire of auxiliary labor in agriculture." These new rules mean a break with the entire recent past of the Bolsheviks. They sanction officially hired labor in peasant agriculture, and at that, they set no limitations to the number of persons hired. Thereby they not only permit, they assist in the development of capitalistic relations in rural economy. It must be especially noted that the employer of this hired labor (the former kulak and "exploiter") does not in any degree forfeit his franchise at the Soviet elections, whereas originally, according to the Soviet Constitution, only laboring people enjoyed such franchise.

We hear very different talk today. The Bolsheviks now unanimously declare that they do not wish to aggravate the class struggle in the villages. In accordance with this new policy a very special theory is being evolved of harmony of interests between the peasants of all levels. Pravda (May 3) says squarely that "in view of the desirability of strengthening the productivity of the peasantry, we must in every way facilitate the hiring of laborers in the interests of the poor." The former apostles of class hatred now begin to preach one of the commonplaces of classic political economy: the quicker capital is developed the more profitable it will be for labor, for it will be so much the easier for the labor that is for hire to find employment.

So it came about that life has made sport of the Bolshevik Communists. When at last they grasped that the foundation of Russia's welfare lies in the development of the productivity of her peasantry, and that there is no other way to the economic reconstruction of the country except by raising the general standard of village life, they became plus royalistes que le roi même. In this connection a speech which Bukharin made before the political workers of the Party in Moscow on April 17 is very characteristic (Pravda, April 24). Naturally it was not at all an accident that Bukharin was the man to speak on this delicate question. He belongs to the left wing and heretofore was known as the most extreme of Lenin's pupils, a passionate enemy of capitalism, and apostle of world-wide Socialist revolution. And if it was he who stepped forward to expound the Communist Party's new peasant policy, it shows how definitely they have adopted this stand, for nothing but party discipline could have forced him to speak as he did.

Great, indeed, is the distance traversed by the Marxist Bolsheviks from their original conceptions of the peasantry as a homogeneous reactionary mass, politically as well as socially; of the theory of fanning the flames of class war in the villages; of a policy of deliberately ruining the peasant, relying on and organizing Committees of the Destitute! After eight years of government experience, they have learned that all this policy was nothing but cheap demagogy, and that the economic policy of a state demands something different. In a country where the peasant population is in a huge majority, no policy can be effectual that is not based on peasant interests. To be sure, the Bolsheviki understood this somewhat late, namely after their "dictatorship of the proletariat" (which, essentially, has never been anything but a dictatorship of the Communist Party) had ruined the peasant. But they have at last understood that their power will have no economic foundation unless they secure command of the national economy, and that this can be only peasant economy. Hence all this recent flirting with the peasant, all this swing of the pendulum in their economic policy, with hymns of praise to the kulak and exhortations to accumulate wealth. The hopes of obtaining foreign loans have collapsed; the reconstruction of industry under the existing general conditions is also not to be counted on. From one kind of demagogy the Bolsheviki have gone over to another.

It would be too cheap a satisfaction merely to point out that, in the eighth year of their control, the Bolsheviks have abandoned their old Marxist attitude toward the peasant, which had always been a cabinet theory, far from real life. Better late than never. While remaining politically opposed to Bolshevism, yet one may admit that the latest peasant policy of the Soviets is gradually becoming a healthy one, inasmuch as it pursues the practical purpose of developing the productive forces of the country, and primarily of the peasantry. But this is still very far from a practical settlement of that question, so vast and so fundamental for Russia's future. A German proverb says: Whoever has said A must say B. And of course, the Bolsheviks will never be able to say B as long as they remain Bolsheviks.

What do we understand by making the interest of the peasantry the foundation of policy? Certainly it is something more than mere cooperation in the enrichment of the peasant, for which Bukharin appealed. It means an appreciation of the fact that it is the Government's duty to meet half-way and satisfy the social and political demands of the peasant. In other words, more than purely economic measures are required. He must be granted the freedom of individual and personal initiative and the opportunity to intensify his productivity by hiring labor. He must have the right of free, unhampered coöperative association, with a voluntary--not as heretofore obligatory--membership, the right of free election to the administrative machinery --not appointment from above, as has been the practice all these years. But is this then enough? Freedom of economic determination is inseparably linked up with civic rights and with the possibility of influencing and determining the social and political life of the commonwealth. The peasant must feel that he is a full-fledged citizen with rights equal to those of the city dwellers. In his village he must feel that the central power is closely related to him, and he must trust it and be assured that it stands watch over his interests.

Can the peasant thus regard the Soviet Government? To formulate this question is to answer it in the negative. The Soviet press itself is full of facts which prove this. It harps upon the lack of connection between the peasant and the Soviet power, upon the distrust and even animosity of the village masses toward the Communists, upon the chasm existing between the villages and the cities, which latter, in the opinion of the peasant, are inhabited only by Bolsheviks. For some years now the Bolsheviks have been talking of the "smychka," or close connection between town and village, yet the affair has not made a step of progress. The attempt at a so-called revival of the village Soviets, by which the Bolsheviks tried to give the village the possibility of somewhat greater self-administration, had very sad results: Pravda, of March 29, informs us of the election results in 406 uiezdy (districts), which means 94 percent of all the uiezdy of central Russia. 78,864 persons were elected to the village Soviets, of whom only 4,764 were Communists, that is six percent (at the previous elections they were 11.6 percent).

The Russian peasant as he is today and the Soviet Government as it now exists are two incompatible things. This is a matter of common knowledge to all who are familiar with the actual state of affairs in Russia,--on which there can be no dispute.

It would be difficult to over-estimate the consequences of the events which have occurred in Russia during the last decade. The sum total includes the disappearance of the landed proprietor and the abolition of large estates, the seizure and distribution among the peasants of the private and state lands, the destruction of industry by the Bolsheviks who have tried by forcible measures to establish Socialism in an economically backward country, the gradual and growing consciousness on the part of the peasant of his own decisive rôle in its destinies. Russia has become even more a country of peasants and of agriculture than she was before 1917. In consequence of what Russia has been through--world war, revolution, civil war, foreign interventions--the outcome of which, as well as of the whole "White" movement were determined by the attitude of the peasant toward them--his specific gravity has increased enormously, both subjectively, in his own eyes, and objectively, in the life of the nation.

In spite of the danger of prophesying, one can foretell even now that Russia will be reborn--indeed is already being reborn--as a great peasant democracy. In eastern Europe an enormous new Denmark is evidently destined to arise. The Soviet Government, in whose hands are the keys of the life of the great country, is vaguely conscious of this. It is disturbed by the inevitable internal and external development of the peasant democracy, and is trying to establish its own ascendancy by flirting with the peasantry, with the hope that at the price of trifling concessions it may retain the whole power in its hands. Everything indicates that the attempt will not be successful. The only question of importance is, how long the process of natural growth will take. The rock itself yields and crumbles under the living pressure of the roots of a growing tree.

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  • VLADIMIR ZENZINOV, long a member of the Russian Socialist Revolutionist Party, one of the Editors of Dni, Berlin
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