Peasantry and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (Part 3: Betrayal)
“The population is the class enemy” — Andrei Platonov, Hurdy-Gurdy
“The peasant will become the master of Russia, since he represents numbers. And it will be terrible for our future.” — Maxim Gorky
As we saw in Part 1, Marxist theory saw the peasantry as an ally of the proletariat, but a conditional and temporary one. In 1905, Lenin wrote that in the struggle for socialism, a “singleness of will is impossible” between the peasantry and the proletariat. There was to be no question that class struggle between the two would be inevitable.
In Part 2 we saw that the Civil War did not, in fact, result in Bolshevik victory over their country, but in fact a stalemate of sorts between the urban proletariat and the rural peasantry. The New Economic Policy was the codification of this surrender, and the socialist plans of the Bolsheviks were replaced with capitalist ones. But this was a mere strategic retreat, and having time to lick their wounds and regroup, the Bolsheviks would again begin an offensive against the countryside.
The trajectory of the Bolshevik’s thinking can be fairly clearly seen in Stalin’s statements across the 1920s. In 1924, Stalin denounced Trotskyism as it “would inevitably have ended in failure, for it would have divorced from the Russian proletariat its ally, the poor peasantry.” Here we still find rationalisations for the retreat, and emphasis on the peasant as ally.
In 1925, perhaps the highpoint of NEP liberalisation, Stalin notes “that certain contradictions exist between the proletariat and the peasantry cannot, of course, be denied” however:
…some comrades draw the conclusion that the Party’s main task is to foment class struggle [in the countryside]. That is wrong. That is idle talk. That is not our main task now. That is a rehash of the old Menshevik songs taken from the old Menshevik encyclopedia… To foment class struggle in the countryside is not by any means the main task at present…
Over the next two years, the Bolsheviks continued to stabilise and institutionalise themselves and the peasantry continued to enrich themselves. The tables would begin to turn. In 1927, Stalin would begin stressing the temporality of the peasant-proletariat alliance:
a) we need the alliance of the workers and the peasants not in order to preserve the peasantry as a class, but to transform and remould it in a way that will contribute to the victory of socialist construction;
b) the Soviet government’s policy of strengthening this alliance is designed not to perpetuate, but to abolish classes, to hasten the tempo of their abolition.
In 1928, a poor harvest put the Soviet plans for rapid industrialisation — funded by grain exports — in jeopardy. Rather than alliance, Stalin now would emphasise the inherent tension between peasant and proletariat. In January, he would state:
Today the Soviet system rests upon two heterogeneous foundations: upon united socialised industry and upon individual small-peasant economy based on private ownership of the means of production. Can the Soviet system persist for long on these heterogeneous foundations? No, it cannot.
As the individual peasant economy “engenders” capitalism, “no serious talk of the victory of socialist construction” could be had. Collectivisation and the end of the independent peasant would be necessary to defeat the capitalist threat. The tenor of Stalin’s calls for urgency would rise, and in 1929 he would argue that the “rightist” position of continuing capitalism in the countryside:
…overlooks… a fierce class struggle, a life-and-death struggle, a struggle on the principle of “who will beat whom?”
The rhetoric of alliance was replaced with the rhetoric of war, and Stalin speaks of “an offensive along the whole front against the capitalist elements in the countryside”. The strategic retreat and new offensive is made explicit:
At that time the policy of not permitting dekulakisation was necessary and correct. But now? Now things are different. Now we are able to carry on a determined offensive against the kulaks, break their resistance, eliminate them as a class and replace their output by the output of the collective farms and state farms.
The late 1920s saw an increase in requisitions, the start of coercive collectivisation, dekulakisation, and increasing repression in other realms, such as religion. These were met, unsurprisingly, with increased peasant resistance. In 1929, the OGPU would record around 1,300 peasant disturbances throughout the USSR.
As discussed in Part 2, the fabric of peasant society had undergone a number of dramatic shifts in the Civil War and 1920s. The independent farmers who benefited from the Stolypin reforms were brought back within the commune. A whole new cadre of peasants, living in nuclear families and on recently seized land, was created. Many peasants found themselves newly wealthy, or newly impoverished. Intergenerational tension was high, and old grudges remained from the preceding decade of turmoil.
Dekulakisation exploited these tensions and divisions. Dekulakising brigades were often formed by dissatisfied or resentful groups, and were often filled with, in the words of an OGPU report “socially alien and often criminal element[s]”. With, more-or-less, state sanction, these groups (again according to OGPU reports) “drove the dekulakised naked into the streets, beat them, organised drinking-bouts in their houses, shot over their heads, forced them to dig their own graves, undressed women and searched them, stole valuable, money etc”.
It is important to emphasise the arbitrariness of the categorisation of “kulak” at this stage. Sviderskii, a party functionary, would lament in 1924 “There are no kulaks in the villages. Kulaks can be found only in the edicts of the thirteenth Party Congress”. People were often designated as “kulaks” due to grudges or local politics. At times, when quotas for kulak-deportations were set, villages would determine who was a “kulak” through drawing straws, or by nominating childless bachelors to spare the children. Yagoda would even write to Stalin with concern that poor peasants, workers and labourers, “babblers” or other troublemakers were being labelled as “dyed-in-the-wool kulaks”. Millions were deported, and hundreds of thousands died during the process. Collectivisation, the forcing of peasants into massive, state-monitored farms would displace millions more.
In 1930 the OGPU recorded 13,754 peasant disturbances, with at least 2,500,000 participants, and dozens of incidences categorised as “revolts” every month. In addition, 4,000 acts of individual “terrorism” as well as 1,200 murders were also recorded. The publication of Stalin’s “Dizzy with Success” in 1930 can be seen as perhaps a tactical (rather than strategic) retreat in the face of this staunch peasant resistance. Stalin blamed the “excesses” of collectivisation on local communists, and was able to portray himself akin to a ‘good tsar’ (or perhaps a Napoleon III to call back to Marx) and saviour of the peasants. With a relaxing of restrictions, almost ten million peasants fled the collective farms they had just been herded into. This retreat was, of course, temporary and the Bolshevik state would soon again reassert itself against the peasantry.
Unlike in the Civil War, the Bolsheviks had a fully functioning state apparatus at their disposal, and the peasantry were, this time, less heavily armed. Alongside spontaneous riots or lynchings, the peasants utilised the weapons of the weak. This resistance was evocatively captured in a report written by the Italian vice-consul, stationed in Novorossiysk in 1933:
The battlelines remain the same: rural masses who are resisting passively yet eﬀectively; party and government more determined than ever to resolve the situation… Peasants have not confronted the army, resolute and armed to the teeth, with any army of their own, not even in the form of the armed bands and brigandage that usually go hand-in-hand with serfs’ uprisings. Perhaps this is where the peasants’ real power lies or, shall we say, is the reason for their adversaries’ lack of success. The exceptionally powerful and well-armed Soviet apparatus is quite at a loss to ﬁnd any solution or victory in one or more open battles: the enemy does not congregate, is widely dispersed, and battles are sought and provoked to no avail, all have to run their course in an interminable series of tiny, even trivial operations: an unhoed ﬁeld here, some hidden quintals of grain there…
I won’t dwell too much on this point, as I’ve written quite a bit previously on the Bolshevik assault against the countryside, and the violent, brutal nature of this. Suffice to say, we know how this story ends: the state is victorious; the peasantry is collectivised; and millions die through direct violence, starvation and disease.
“Military-feudal exploitation of the peasantry” — Bukharin
The immediate drive to collectivisation was due to the 1928 grain crisis, however we have seen that baked into Marxist theory the clash between the proletarian state and the peasantry was “inevitable”. The heterogeneous, diverse, commune-based, smallholding peasantry was antithetical to Bolshevik’s goals in two senses. In the first instance, the peasantry was quite literally a form of petite-bourgeoisie, benefiting from private property and the ability to trade on a free market. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the diversity and disparity of these peasant communities made it almost impossible for the Bolshevik dictatorship to penetrate or dominate. The peasants could evade the bureaucracy, underreport their produce, overreport their population, dodge work, lie, horde and all manner of tactics they had honed over the centuries in resisting the Tsarist regime.
Dekulakisation was the explicit “liquidation” of kulaks as a class, but collectivisation was similarly an effort to “remould and transform” and abolish the peasantry as a class. Its purpose was to destroy the economic and social unit of the peasant mir, which was hostile to the outside world (whether Tsarist or Bolshevik), and force the peasantry under state control.
The issue in the late 1920s was not that the peasants were becoming too impoverished, but because they were getting too rich, and outside of the state. The collective farms would enhance the state capacity to appropriate the peasants’ produce, and to direct their development. This was the “proletarianisation” of the peasantry: the transformation of independent peasants into wage-working, employed kolkhoz farmers; the transformation of family farms into massive factory farms; the transformation of the traditional peasant day into a regimented work day.
Peasants compared working for the sovkhoz — farms directly run by the state — to the barchina, the feudal labour dues under the Tsar. Kolkhoz (collective farm) members were required to work not just their collective farm, but also state land. The kolkhoz was required to sell certain quantities of produce (as determined by the state) to the state for prices determined by the state. The kolkhoz was required to supply annual corvée labour to state-run roads. The state requisitioned milk, meat, eggs and other produce from the kolkhozniki’s personal gardens. The kolkhoz did not own its own combines, tractors, or other machinery, but these were rented from the State. The head of the kolkhoz or sovkhoz, similar to gentry pre-revolutionary, had enormous remit to abuse the labourers under them, insulting, beating or deporting peasants, or using their labour for personal projects. And finally, the imposition of the propiska, an internal passport, once again tied the peasantry to their land, immobilising them to an extent not seen since the abolition of serfdom.
This was, of course, not a simple return to serfdom. Collectivisation was coupled with modernisation, and the Soviets collaborated closely with the largest agricultural firms from the United States to rationalise and ‘Taylorise’ agriculture. Farms were often laid out grid-like. There was increasing specialisation and monoculture. Rather than farming for subsistence, the kolkhoz and sovkhoz farmed for the market — both local and international. It was in fact the international market that in many ways dominated attention, as selling grain overseas was viewed as the clearest path to raise the capital necessary for accumulation. In his investigation of the modernising state, James C. Scott writes:
Semiotically, we cannot understand this modernist vision of agriculture as an isolated ideological fragment. It is always seen as the negation of the existing rural world. A kolkhoz is meant to replace a mir or village, machines to replace horse-drawn plows and hand labor, proletarian workers to replace peasants, scientific agriculture to replace folk tradition and superstition, education to replace ignorance and malokulturnyi, and abundance to replace bare subsistence. Collectivization was meant to spell the end of the peasantry and its way of life.
In the NEP years, the state was able to procure around 15 percent of each harvest for its own use. In September 1935, state procurements were now yielding almost 40 percent of the harvest. An exultant Lazar Kaganovich described the miracle in a letter to Ordzhonikidze:
What is happening, for example, with this year’s grain procurements, is an absolutely fantastic, stunning victory, a victory of Stalinism.
It was most certainly a victory for the Stalinist regime and the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”, and it had been achieved by crushing and eliminating the peasantry: with the causalities numbering in the millions.
In Parts 1–3, I’ve tried to outline a board sketch of the peasantry and their role in socialist theory and practice. In Part 4 I’m going navel gaze and muse a little about the implications and lessons we can take from this narrative arc.