Peasantry and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (Part 1: Alliance)
“For almost two hundred years, [the Russian peasants’] whole life has been one long, dumb, passive opposition to the existing order of things: he has endured Oppression, he has groaned under it: but he has never accepted anything that goes on outside the life of the rural commune.” — Alexander Herzen
The Russian Revolution of October 1917 was the world’s first Marxist revolution. Informed by Marx’s ideas and methods, the Bolsheviks directed the surging workers and soldiers not just in toppling the flailing Provisional Government, but in installing a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat. According to Marxist theory, the dictatorship of the proletariat would be a transition period between capitalism and communism, a period of intense class struggle where the proletariat would stamp out the last elements of the bourgeoisie and of capitalism. Unlike “all previous historical movements”, the proletarian movement would represent the “self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority”, and thus be the first truly democratic movement. And here the Russian Revolution met its sharpest and most controversial contradiction: it was a proletarian revolution in a country populated not by proletarians, but overwhelmingly by peasants.
The history of the early Soviet Union is inextricably tied to this tension. The revolution, the civil war, collectivisation and the subsequent mass deaths, the entrenchment of Stalinism: all can only be understand with a close eye on the peasant element within the Soviet Union.
Prior to the Bolsheviks, and prior to Marx even being known in Russia, there were the Narodniks. Progressively minded members of the growing intelligentsia, linked in with European socialist currents and with a romantic vision of the Russian peasantry, ventured to ‘go to the people’ and uplift their conditions. The campaign by the idealistic urban middle classes was met with staunch suspicion and outright resistance by the conservative peasantry. The rosy picture of communal peasant life that had inspired the Narodniks dissolved in the face of the day-to-day loutishness, drunkenness and violence of rural life. The Narodnik movement petered out with disillusionment, and many of their ideological successors took lessons from its failings. Some, such as Narodnaya Volya, ceased public appeals to the broad masses and organised as tight-knit, secretive terror cells, with the aim to kill the Tsar and shatter the peasants’ belief in the divine nature of autocracy. Others saw Russian socialism’s hope in the burgeoning new class of the urban, industrial proletariat, and found vindication and hope in the works of Marx.
Marx certainly was fertile ground for the disillusioned Russian socialists, and many of their feelings are echoed in his writings on the 1848 Revolutions, as seen in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. In this text, Marx describes the peasantry as a class that is not a class as such. The peasantry is “an enormous mass whose members live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with each other”. By their nature as small, self-sufficient landowners (or at least land-tillers), peasants remain isolated from each other, confined mostly to just their immediate village.
The significance of this is that the peasantry are a class almost defined by reaction: their “conditions of existence” separate their interests, their culture, and way of life from other classes. However, as the small-holding peasant forms “no community, no national bond, and no political organisation” across the peasantry as a whole, outside of their village, they fail to act as a uniform class. Rather, “the great mass of the French nation is formed by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes”. Unable to act as cohesively as a class, the peasants must be represented from outside; Napoleon in the case of 1848. In Marx’s view, “the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class”. The peasantry only fight the bourgeois in attempts “to roll back the wheel of history”.
As in France 1848, so in Russia. Rather than Napoleon, the peasants saw the Tsar as he “which protects them from the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above”. In the words of Herzen:
The idea of the Tsar still enjoys some considerable prestige in the mind of the peasant. But it is not the actual Tsar Nicholas whom he adores, it is rather an abstract idea, a myth, a kind of Providence, an Avenger of evils, an embodiment of justice in the popular imagination.
If anything, the Russian peasantry was even more disunited and disparate then the French. The term for the peasant village, the mir, was synonymous with “world”, reflecting the insularity of the Russian peasant. Even as late as 1897 the question of nationality was not included in the census due to the obscurity of its meaning to the majority of the populace.
Georgi Plekhanov, former Narodnik, one of the first Russian Marxists, and founding member of the Emancipation of Labour Group (which would ultimately evolve into the Bolsheviks, after many twists and turns), makes his thoughts on the peasantry abundantly clear in his 1885 pamphlet Our Differences. Plekhanov lists five points for Russian socialists to understand:
- Communist revolution “cannot in any way grow out of… petty-bourgeois peasant socialism”.
- The peasants’ “inherent character” places bourgeois forms of social life “first and foremost”.
- Peasants will serve only a passive, not an active role, on the road to communism.
- The communist movement “can be assumed only by the working class” in industrial centres.
- The proletariats’ emancipation can be achieved only by “its own conscious efforts”.
Not just theoretical musings, Plekhanov wrote into his draft of the political platform of the Russian Social-Democrats that “the main bulwark of absolutism is precisely the political indifference and intellectual backwardness of the peasantry.”
It would be a mistake to believe based on the above that Marx and the Marxists therefore concluded the peasantry were irrelevant. Rather, ‘the peasant question’ would be one of the most vital to grapple with if a revolution were to succeed. In Civil War in France, Marx notes a distinct shift in the prospect of the peasants. In 1848 “the peasant was a Bonapartist”, however in 1871 “this prejudice of the past could not withstand the appeal of the Commune which called to the living interests, the urgent wants of the peasantry.” According to Marx, if the Paris Commune had been able to get their message to the peasantry, the peasants would have joined the revolutionaries rather than the reaction.
Engels, writing in 1894, shows a similar development in his view of the role of peasantry. While he still writes of the “apathy” of the peasantry being the “strongest pillar” of Russian despotism, this is “by no means insuperable”. Capitalist development had continued to weaken the petite-bourgeois position of the peasants, with cheap grain from abroad impoverishing domestic small scale producers. It would be the task of socialist parties, according to Engels, to “first go from the towns to the cities” and win the peasantry over to the side of the proletariat. Lenin, writing in 1901, would echo this call-to-arms exactly:
…the hopeless poverty, ignorance, lack of rights, and degradation, from which the peasants suffer, lay an imprint of Asiatic backwardness upon the entire social system of our country. Social-Democracy would not be doing its duty if it did not render every assistance to this struggle. This assistance should take the form, briefly put, of carrying the class struggle into the countryside.
This would not be a repeat of the Narodnik’s disastrous ‘going to the people’, and Lenin had “no doubt that all the militant elements of the Party must concentrate on work in the towns and industrial centres” and that “only the industrial proletariat” would be capable of revolution. Rather, including peasant demands in the Social-Democrats’ program would be “to guide the activities of those forces that cannot find [another] outlet.” Trotsky, writing in the aftermath of the 1905 Revolution, saw the peasants’ political goals as “utterly indefinite, unformed, full of possibilities and therefore full of surprises.” These “working masses” in the countryside would be “drawn into the revolution” following the urban proletariat, who would act as the “advance guard of the revolution.” He would later call not for a “bourgeois republic… nor even the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, but a workers’ government supporting itself upon the peasantry.”
In contrast to Plekhanov’s views above, Lenin provides a different tactical playbook to achieve socialism. A few key points:
- The peasantry is not homogenous, but “includes a great number of semi-proletarian as well as petty-bourgeois elements.”
- To successfully carry out a democratic revolution, the proletariat “must” ally “to itself the mass of the peasantry in order to crush by force the resistance of the autocracy and to paralyse the instability of the bourgeoisie.”
- However, the “proletariat alone can be relied on to march to the end” goal of socialism. For the socialist revolution, it must ally itself to “the mass of the semi-proletarian elements” to crush the bourgeois and paralyse the peasantry and petty-bourgeoisie.
- Therefore “the time will come” when the the democratic revolution will be complete, and it will become “ridiculous to talk about the ‘singleness of will’ of the proletariat and peasantry”.
The socialists saw the peasantry as an indispensable ally of a proletarian revolution, but not an equal ally — a subordinate ally to be used only insofar it helped further the goals of the urban, industrial proletariat.
“Drive the Squires Out”
Both the February and October Revolutions would have peasants, former peasants, and relapsed peasants (those returning back to peasant life), as key players. The overwhelming majority of soldiers fighting in WWI were conscripted from the peasantry. The industrial workers, too, were largely drawn from the peasantry. At the outbreak of WWI, seventy-five percent of people living in St. Petersburg had been born a peasant, with a good half having migrated to the city in the previous twenty years. As recently as 1881, seventy-one percent of all industrial workers would return to their villages for summer farm work, in a mass annual exodus. This reveals that Russia was not a neatly drawn society of estates, but fluid and rapidly evolving.
Many socialist activists would be drawn from this mass of migrating peasantry. Emboldened young men (and women) seeking to escape the drudgery of peasant life saw both opportunity and turmoil in industrialisation. While it was liberating and promised standards of living enjoyed far above traditional rural life, it was also oppressing, with wretched work conditions and brutal, dirty labour.
The February Revolution was brought about by a confluence of factors. The pressures of WW1, including disastrous military losses, and sharp shortages of basic goods; the personal unpopularity of the Tsar (who had personally taken over leadership of the war effort), the Tsarina (with her German background), and the influence of the enigmatic Rasputin at court; increasing labour militancy as the urban proletariat population exploded, all without a viable democratic path to air their grievances.
While both the February and October Revolution focus on events within Petrograd, with Moscow, Kazan and some other urban centres playing a supporting role, the countryside also saw immense transformation. As the Tsarist apparatus began to disintegrate, the peasants quite independently and opportunistically sacked manor houses and seized land — both private and state — for their own use. The peasant mir reasserted itself against the landed gentry, but also independent peasants who had taken up private lots as part of the Stolypin agricultural reforms. Peasant soldiers would begin deserting in epidemic proportions as word of the appropriations made its way to the front — there was little to gained fighting for an empire in collapse, and seemingly much to be gained by returning to the village and claiming new land.
The Provisional Government, limp and dysfunctional even in Petrograd and regarding core government functions like running the military, was almost completely absent in the countryside. Peasant petitions for widescale land reform went unanswered, and the peasants became increasingly bold in their requisitions. In Tambov province, hundreds of manors were ransacked, and nobility, such as Prince Boris Vyazemsky, were lynched by armed groups numbering in the thousands.
The idea of a ‘Soviet’ as a local governing institution was adopted by the peasantry, but in actual practice was usually little more than a rebranding and reinvigoration of the traditional Skhod. However, rather than being dominated by just the village elders, the young, literate and armed men returning from the front took an active role in the village politics. These deserting soldiers would help form local courts, local militias, and local police forces to help defend the revolution and carry out the interests of the village commune.
Although this was all truly revolutionary, and helped wipe away vestiges of the Tsarist state, all coloured with red banners and calls for equality, it is important to maintain that this was not the end-goal socialist revolution envisioned by Marx or Lenin. This revolutionary activity was to Lenin, step one, the democratic revolution. The restoration of the mir and peasant dominance is in the vein of the reactionary petite-bourgeois socialism critiqued by Marx, and not the movement of the communist proletariat. Restoration of the mir, so disrupted by international trade and capitalist development, is “restoring the old means of production”, in the form of “patriarchal relations in agriculture.” Not progressive, but reactionary and utopian.
In Part 2 we will see that proletariat and peasantry did not work together in fraternal solidarity during the civil war, but what “supporting itself upon the peasantry” meant in truly practical, material terms. The goals of the Bolsheviks were grander than the expansion of a peasant commune’s land, and these goals would require the two key produces of the peasantry: food and manpower. In order to succeed in the Civil War, the Bolsheviks would need to stand on the shoulders of the peasantry, and if that were insufficient, on their throats.