Peasantry and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (Part 4: Longue Durée)
“And hereupon, The Earth… was hedged in to In-closures by the teachers and rulers, and the others were made Servants and Slaves” — Gerrard Winstanley, 1649.
In the previous three posts, we have seen the centrality of the peasantry to Russia in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It was peasants and former peasants who were key participants in the February and October Revolutions. It was the peasantry who, independent of the Bolsheviks, wiped the vestiges of Tsarism from the countryside. The peasants were a vital resource and a key enemy during the civil war of all centralising forces. The defiance of the peasants to war communism was the driving force behind the adoption of the New Economic Policy. And finally, it was the independence of the peasantry that had to be overcome and crushed by the Stalinist state through collectivisation.
What are we to make of these events, which claimed the lives of upwards of twenty million people in just a little over one decade?
For the Marxist, there is great insight of what Marx would have perhaps thought in his writings on British India, which with only a few slight edits could almost entirely apply to Russia. It is worth quoting Marx at length here:
Now, sickening as it must be to human feeling to witness those myriads of industrious patriarchal and inoffensive social organizations disorganized and dissolved into their units, thrown into a sea of woes, and their individual members losing at the same time their ancient form of civilization, and their hereditary means of subsistence, we must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies. We must not forget the barbarian egotism which, concentrating on some miserable patch of land, had quietly witnessed the ruin of empires, the perpetration of unspeakable cruelties, the massacre of the population of large towns, with no other consideration bestowed upon them than on natural events, itself the helpless prey of any aggressor who deigned to notice it at all. We must not forget that this undignified, stagnatory, and vegetative life, that this passive sort of existence evoked on the other part, in contradistinction, wild, aimless, unbounded forces of destruction and rendered murder itself a religious rite in Hindostan. We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social state into never changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow.
England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.
Then, whatever bitterness the spectacle of the crumbling of an ancient world may have for our personal feelings, we have the right, in point of history, to exclaim with Goethe:
“Sollte these Qual uns quälen
Da sie unsre Lust vermehrt,
Hat nicht myriaden Seelen
Timur’s Herrschaft aufgezehrt?”
[“Should this torture then torment us
Since it brings us greater pleasure?
Were not through the rule of Timur
Souls devoured without measure?”]
[From Goethe’s “An Suleika”, Westöstlicher Diwan]
Like the Indian peasant, the life of the Russian peasant was certainly not an idyllic one. It was poor, nasty, brutish, and short, stricken with interfamily violence, drunkenness, hunger and poverty. It was certainly not something to idealise, as the Narodniks so disappointingly found out. Like the Indian peasantry, the Russian peasantry found themselves, in the end, at the mercy of a better organised, more industrialised, more disciplined society, which was able to disrupt and dissolve their ancient way of life.
This “social revolution” was not brought about in the interests of the peasantry either, but through the self-interest of the British or Soviet state respectively. And even the staunchest supporter of the Soviet Union would admit that mistakes and errors were made in “her manner of enforcing them.”
So for all the misery, the disease, the death, the broken homes and orphaned children, the destruction, the tortures, the rapes, the pillaging, the murders, afflicting tens of millions of people, should we view this — in terms of ‘world-historic significance’ — as an unfortunate side effect of “progress”? A stepping stone on the path to greater things?
“The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common,
But lets the greater felon loose
Who steals the common from the goose.”
The Russian experience is not without parallel, and the transformation of a peasant society into a proletarian one is a fact for essentially all industrialised societies. In 1600s England, the Restoration Parliament abolished feudal land tenure, untying the peasantry from the land and creating modern property rights for the Lords. A number of reforms further eroded peasant land rights, such as the Statute of Frauds of 1677 which effectively abolished copyhold rights — the rights of peasants to hunt or hold markets and fairs on land. The commons, a vital resource for the peasants, were gradually privatised in a number reforms starting from the 1300s but culminating in the Parliamentary Enclosures of the 18th and 19th centuries. These reforms were often carried out violently, with villages being razed to the ground to be transformed into sheep pasturage by the lords, and similarly violently resisted in a number of peasant revolts and uprisings.
The peasants, uprooted from their land, became wage-labourers and tenant farmers on the new large estates, and later, the landless urban proletariat that would help fuel English industrialisation. Robert Benton Seeley, writing in 1843 would note the progressive nature of this transformation:
If, by converting the little farmers into a body of men who must work for others, more labour is produced, it is an advantage which the nation should wish for … the produce being greater when their joint labours are employed on one farm, there will be a surplus for manufactures, and by this means manufactures, one of the mines of the nation, will increase, in proportion to the quantity of corn produced.
This connection between landlessness and capitalist manufacturing has been made elsewhere. Edward Gibbon Wakefield would make similar observations regarding colonies in the Americas:
In colonies, labourers for hire are scarce. The scarcity of labourers for hire is the universal complaint of colonies. It is the one cause, both of the high wages which put the colonial labourer at his ease, and of the exorbitant wages which sometimes harass the capitalist. . . .
Where land is cheap and all men are free, where every one who so pleases can obtain a piece of land for himself, not only is labour very dear, as respects the labourers’ share of the product, but the difficulty is to obtain combined labour at any price…[consequently] few, even of those whose lives are unusually long, can accumulate great masses of wealth.
In other words, in a society where labourers could find and work their own land — Jefferson’s idealised yeoman farmer — capitalists would find it difficult to find the cheap labour necessary to accumulate wealth. Lenin also touches on the link between land and capitalism, from yet another angle:
In his Poverty of Philosophy, in Capital, and in Theories of Surplus-Value, Marx amply proved that the bourgeois economists often demanded the nationalisation of the land, i.e., the conversion of all land into public property, and that this measure was a fully bourgeois measure. Capitalism will develop more widely, more freely and more quickly from such a measure.
In order to create non-subsistence workers, to have workers who would produce not just for themselves but for others through the market, they had to be disconnected from the land. In the succinct words of Engels “In order to create the modern revolutionary class of the proletariat it was absolutely necessary to cut the umbilical cord which still bound the worker of the past to the land."
Stolypin and the Co-Operatives
Within Russia, this process of land reform started well prior to the Bolsheviks. The Great Emancipation, ending serfdom in 1861, was critical in severing the peasantry from the land. The Stolypin Reforms of the early 1900s were a Tsarist attempt to break up land held in common, privatise allotments, and introduce capitalism into the countryside.
The turbulence of this transition was seen clearly by all, and a Co-Operative Movement arose in parallel. This state sponsored movement aimed to arrest some of the “chaos” of the market, and organise small peasant farmers (whether farming private or common land) into large organisational structures overseen by educated elites. The co-operative theorist Aleksandr Yevdokimov would write of the “chaotic condition of our internal trade” dominated by “an unreasonably large number of links on the chain of intermediaries”. He sounds positively Marxist when he laments the peasant producer being “not the master of his product.”
The Ministry of Finance would report that the chaotic nature of trade was leading to usurious prices, upsetting the balance of trade, and perhaps most importantly: undermining the state’s capacity to effectively carry out taxation. A conference held by Sergei Witte concluded that: “the only solution is to gather the producers themselves into co-operative associations… it is desirable that a great part of [dairy] plants pass out of private entrepreneurial hands, into the hands of such associations.”
One quarter of all peasant households ended up involved in co-operatives, and in some regions such as Vologda Province and Western Siberia, almost the entire dairy industry was organised into co-operatives. This, however, remained a top-down driven movement. The paternalistic nature of the Co-Operative movement is captured by the Moscow Provincial Co-Operative Specialist in the following:
Due to the crudeness of the population and the absence of the necessary experience, our co-operatives are still a tender blossom requiring the application of expert hands and painstaking care. Therefore its emergence and successful development is entirely dependent on the presence of intelligentsia forces, impassioned by the co-operative cause and able to cultivate and direct it.
The fragility of this arrangement became clear as WW1 broke out, and revolution began to stir. The co-operatives found themselves readily co-opted for the purposes of the state: by rationalising and centralising individual peasants under the one organisation, it provided the state the infrastructure it needed to impose price controls, plan production, and control distribution for the purpose of the war effort. When the peasantry rose in revolt in 1917, co-operatives were just another Tsarist institution to destroy in the return to the mir. A number of co-operative specialists aligned themselves with non-Bolshevik socialists, but without any broad base of support they would find themselves arrested and shot by Reds and Whites alike.
Let us just emphasise some of the key points we have previously covered regarding Stalin’s collectivisation: the peasants were uprooted from their land which they had farmed for subsistence; instead they were made employees of large farms and paid a wage; the farming was organised and structured to maximise efficiency and production; in exchange for the wage they worked to produce commodities for the market; selling on the market was done with the explicit goal to earn profit to fund the accumulation of capital and industrialise the country. This is remarkably similar to the outcome of Enclosure, expect instead of being spread across roughly 400 years, it was spread across roughly four — with all the turmoil, death, destruction and revolt concentrated accordingly.
What we see consistently play out throughout history are the forces of the state attempting to impose themselves against the heterogenous peasantry. You can frame this in terms of Marxist class struggle, and it does not matter whether it is the aristocracy, the capitalists, or the dictatorship of the proletariat — they all act similarly in confrontation with the peasantry. They aim to rationalise and “modernise”, to consolidate and centralise, and in the words of James C. Scott, make “legible” to the state.
However, as we have seen in this series of articles, the peasantry are not just objects being acted upon by the outside players— they are active agents, shaping and driving their own circumstances in many ways. Was Stalin’s collectivisation necessary to produce a proletariat class? Of course not: the peasants were actively moving between city and countryside, and forming the industrial proletariat before Stalin was born, as we saw in Part 1. Was collectivisation necessary to bring the peasantry in to co-operation with each other at large scale? No again: hundreds of thousands of peasants organised themselves at larges scales into co-operatives completely voluntarily. Was collectivisation necessary to improve the condition of the peasantry? No: collectivisation was in many ways a response to the growing wealth and power of the peasantry during the New Economic Policy. In fact, peasants constantly show their ability to opportunistically adapt and adjust to changing conditions. They took advantage of Stolypin’s reforms and the co-operatives, and then when something more desirable came along they seized the opportunity (in this case, literally seizing land).
So again, what are we to make of all of this? First, I think it should be abundantly clear that the Bolsheviks very much put into practice the Marxist idea of class struggle. The dictatorship of the proletariat waged explicit war against the peasantry. The vast majority of the Russian population was thus subjugated and brought under the control of the state. Secondly, we should ask ourselves, do we exclaim with Marx and Goethe:
“Should this torture then torment us
Since it brings us greater pleasure?”
Do we consider the destruction wrought to “modernise” the peasantry worth it? Should we view Stalin alongside the British Raj in India, or the English Enclosures, as a brutal but progressive movement? Or should we perhaps say, “hold up, maybe the brutal oppression of some people by others resulting in untold misery and death and destruction should be avoided? Maybe?”
Was there an alternative?
The crude Marxist has a get-out-of-jail-free card, and they will claim “material conditions” meant this was all an inescapable conclusion. People act in their “self-interest”, and circularly we conclude that however they acted was therefore in their “self-interest” and therefore the only course of action. Of course, when Marx wrote:
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please”
This still includes “Men make their own history”. Engels, in rebuking the “tommyrot” of the “recent “Marxists”” would again emphasise “We ourselves make our own history” and that “Yes, even the ghostly traditions, which haunt the minds of men play a role albeit not a decisive one.”
When confronted with a situation, there is always a multitude of paths that can be taken — some harder than others (for Seneca, suicide was always a viable option). The path chosen, done so with incomplete information and foresight, can be an incorrect one. It was not, as an example, in the Soviet Union’s “self-interest” (in any sensible use of the term) to embrace the pseudoscientific Lysenkoism which exacerbated and prolonged famines.
Imagine a country, overwhelmingly agricultural and made up of small peasants and rich landlords. A weak, impoverished country, which lies under the rule of an autocratic, conservative Tsar. During a world war it is shaken by revolution and plunged into civil war. In following years, it is invaded by a more developed and stronger neighbour. Nevertheless, this country manages to rapidly industrialise, it transforms its peasantry into a modern proletarian workforce. It does this not only without committing mass atrocities, but becomes one of the wealthiest countries on the planet with an incredibly robust welfare system and broad social equality. You don’t need to imagine this country: it is Finland.
For any liberal, the choice is obvious. For the Soviet-apologist, Finland presents a fairly difficult case to overcome. The economic achievements of the Soviet Union, especially in the long term, are paltry compared to this little backwater, ex-Tsarist state. Yes, there are nuances and Finland’s position is not perfectly comparable to Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, but we are talking about momentuous differences in results. Are we meant to be impressed that Ukraine in 1989 had a GDP per capita one third that of Finland? And if we strip away the supposed developmental achievements of the Soviet Union, what do we really have left?
Communism, in Marx’s understanding, was not the movement to transform the peasantry into the proletariat, but for the self-abolition of the proletariat as a class. It was not a matter of ensuring landless peasants could sell their labour, but of abolishing labour. Communism was not even majorly concerned with abolishing private property, because as the Communist Manifesto points out “private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population” due to capitalism. All of the transformation that occurred under the Soviet Union was seen by Marx as taking place under capitalism in his lifetime. Engels would even take note of the growing state-ownership “of the productive forces” and argue this was “not the solution of the conflict” with capitalist relations.
Once we acknowledge Finland, and once we acknowledge the Soviet Union was not abolishing “the present state of things”, the remaining drawcard is that it remained a workers’ state: a Dictatorship of the Proletariat. The dictatorship, the repression, the bloodshed is the achievement. But like the aristocrats and capitalists of England, this “achievement” was grinding the peasantry under their heel and transforming them into wage-working commodity producing proletarians. Like the Taylorists and Fordists, they ‘modernised’ industry to squeeze as much surplus value from the new workers as possible in the service of capital accumulation.
So in the grand march of history where do we end up? In the Soviet Union the peasantry were dealt a killing blow, just as we have seen occur in England, France, Germany, and can still see happening today in the highlands of South East Asia or the rainforests of South America. Weilding the axe was not the capitalist class, but the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. A dictatorship that in a few years would collapse and capitalist relations were formally reintroduced into the country. The Soviet experiment was little more than a horrendously violent blip in a path of history already well underway. Which isn’t a terribly insightful conclusion, sorry.
I’ve linked the Marxist theoretical texts throughout, the historic information has been drawn from the following:
Russia in Flames by Laura Engelstein
A People’s Tragedy by Orlando Figes
The Russian Revolution by Sheila Fitzpatrick
Peasants & Government in the Russian Revolution by Graeme J. Gill
The Great Soviet Peasant War 1917–1933 by Andrea Graziosi
Transforming Peasants: Society, State and the Peasantry, 1861–1930 by J. Pallot
Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott
Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis 1890–1928 by Stephen Smith