Tony Cliff

Lenin 1

Chapter 11
The Muzhik in Rebellion

The Peasants Enter the Arena

THE DECISIVE struggles of the revolution took place in the towns, but these were followed by widespread uprisings of the rural population. After the spring of 1905, peasant struggles developed throughout the countryside. Peasants seised landowners’ land, ransacked their estates, took their grain and cattle. One historian described the movement thus:

South of Moscow, in the depths of the black-soil region, lies the gubernia of Kursk, and here began the first important agrarian disturbances of the revolutionary period. On the night of February 6, 1905, there was a great stir in the village of Kholzovki, a great tramping and creaking along the road which led to the estate of a certain Popov, much chopping and crashing in his forests, and then a heavier creaking along the homeward road to the village. When the guards appeared, it was too late; the peasants had already cut a large quantity of timber, and now they offered “armed resistance to the police” – though with what result, the chronicle does not say. From Kholzovki the disturbances spread to the surrounding communes, as though according to a plan already agreed upon – or so says the Department of Police. Of an evening, the peasants wait for the order to get under way. Then somewhere on the horizon a signal-fire would be lighted, and with a great outcry and a promiscuous discharge of fire-arms, the peasants would rattle off along the road to the estate selected for that evening’s pillaging, where they would take whatever they could cart away, and then return home again. Detachments of soldiers were marched into the district, but the disorders spread to four other uezds or counties before they could be halted. [1]

During the summer of 1905, there were peasant riots in 60 districts of 27 provinces. In the last three months of the year, peasant risings occurred in 300 districts of 47 provinces. [2]

The peasant movement was at its most violent in the underprivileged central region, where the wrecking of landowners’ homes and property was devastating. Strikes and boycotts were practiced principally in the south; and in the north, where the movement was weakest, the felling of forests was its most common form of expression. Wherever economic discontent began to be mixed with radical political demands, the peasant refused to recognise the administrative authorities and to pay taxes. [3]

The most stormy events ... occurred in Saratov province at the end of 1905. Not a single passive peasant was left in the villages which were drawn into the movement; all were involved in the rising. The landowners and their families were expelled from their homes, all movable property was shared out, the cattle were led away, the labourers and house servants were paid off and, finally, the “red cockerel” was set on the buildings. (That is, they were set on fire.) Armed detachments headed the peasant “columns” carrying out these raids. The village police and watchmen made themselves scarce, and in certain places were arrested by the armed peasants. The landlord’s buildings were set on fire to make it impossible for the landlord to return to his lands after a certain time; but there was no violence. [4]

Peasants’ revolts continued throughout Russia from the autumn of 1905 to the autumn of 1906. Their aim was to get rid of the inheritance of feudal relations of property and production. The agrarian problem had dominated the national life of Russia for decades, and peasant revolts had occurred again and again over a long period. A revolutionary peasant movement with a long tradition and widespread influence among the masses had in fact existed for a very long time.

The peasants, it should be understood, were not an integrated class, but a social group differentiated into contradictory classes: the rich peasant, the kulak; the middle peasant; and lastly, the poor peasant and agricultural worker.

Lenin summed up the class divisions of the Russian agricultural population in European Russia in 1905 in the table below. [5]


Number of holdings

Total area of land
(million desiatins)

Average des.
per holding

a) Ruined peasantry crushed
    by feudal exploitation




b) Middle peasantry




c) Peasant bourgeoisie and
    capitalist land ownership




d) Feudal latifundia








Not classified according to holdings


Grand total




This basic division of the land between a few landlords at one extreme and masses of poor peasants at the other – “about 330 poor peasant families for each big landlord” – lay behind the appalling technical backwardness of agriculture, the oppressed and downtrodden position of the mass of the peasantry, and the endless variety of their feudal corvée exploitation.

Under the corvée system of farming, the peasant allotment was a means of supplying the landlord cheaply with farm hands, implements, and livestock. The system was particularly widespread in the central gubernias of European Russia, the heartland of Russian agriculture. The main feature of the system was labour rent, of which one form was the prepayment of peasants during the winter for work that they would carry out later in the summer. In winter, the peasants were badly in need of cash and were compelled to accept extortionate terms. Another form of labour rent was the “composite labour service,” under which the peasants committed themselves – for money or in return for the land rented to them – to till one desiatin of the landlord’s spring crop, one desiatin of his winter crop, and sometimes also one desiatin of meadow land, all with their own implements and horses.

The “cut-off” lands (otrezki), a major grievance of the peasantry, were used for similar exploitation. These lands, stolen by the landlords during the 1861 “emancipation” of the serfs, constituted something like a fifth of the peasants’ original holdings. Furthermore, it was the best quality land that was taken from the peasant, and he was thus deprived of meadows and pastures, and of access to woods and rivers. He was also required to pay for his allotment. He could do so by giving labour to the landlord, or by making a money payment that considerably exceeded the rental value of the allotment (by as much as 50–75 per cent). The peasant could terminate this obligation by making a “redemption payment,” which was in excess of the market value of the land. By 1905, the landlords had acquired 1.9 milliard roubles in redemption dues and interest, which, taking into account the devaluation of the rouble in the previous 44 years, was nearly three times the market value of the land. The need to work off these obligations put the peasants very much under the landlords’ yoke. To add insult to injury, many peasants now had to work on the “cut-offs.”

The peasant allotments were tiny plots of land, consisting mostly of several scattered narrow strips and distinguished by soil of the poorest quality, the best having been taken by the landlords in 1861, and what was left being exhausted.

The chains of bondage were strengthened by the institution of the village commune. This enforced communal use of the land, characterised by compulsory crop rotation and undivided woods and pastures. Its principal feature was collective liability for the fulfilment of all kinds of services and payments to the landlords and the state, periodical redistribution of the land with no right to refuse the allotment given, and prohibition of its purchase and sale. The village commune was used by the large landlords to intensify feudal oppression and to squeeze land redemption and other payments from the peasants.



Marxism and the Peasantry

From its earliest beginnings in Russia, the Marxist movement recognised the vital importance of the agrarian question, especially the peasant question. The very first draft program of the Russian Marxists, published by the Emancipation of Labour Group in 1885, demanded

a radical revision of our agrarian relations, i.e., of the terms on which the land is to be redeemed and allotted to the peasant communities. The right to refuse their allotments and to leave the commune to be granted to those peasants who may find it advantageous to do so, etc. [6]

That was all the program said. Years later, Lenin commented: “The error of that program is not that its principles or partial demands were wrong. No ... the error of that program is its abstract character, the absence of any concrete view of the subject. Properly speaking it is not a program, but a Marxist declaration in the most general terms. [7] But he hastened to add:

Of course, it would be absurd to put the blame for this mistake on the authors of the program, who for the first time laid down certain principles long before the formation of a workers’ party. On the contrary it should be particularly emphasised that in that program the inevitability of a “radical revision” of the Peasant Reform was recognised 20 years before the Russian revolution. [8]

Very early in his political life, Lenin had made a close study of rural life. His earliest preserved writing is “New economic developments in peasant life,” written in the spring of 1893. In 1899, he published his first major theoretical work. Researched and written in prison and while in exile in Siberia, this was called The Development of Capitalism in Russia. Two-thirds of this work is devoted to a brilliant and thoroughly documented analysis of capitalist evolution in the Russian countryside, the decay of the feudal economy, and the complex variety of transitional formations that had evolved. This theoretical study provided the groundwork for the practical development of an agrarian policy, strategy, and tactics for the Russian Marxists.

His first effort to elaborate an agrarian program was his article The Workers’ Party and the Peasantry (1901), which may be regarded as the first rough draft of the agrarian program of the RSDLP. It was adopted by the second Congress of the party (1903). The central demands for the agrarian revolution were:

the immediate and complete abolition of redemption payments and quit-rents, and the demand for the return to the people of the hundreds of millions which the Tsarist government has extorted from them in the course of the years to satisfy the greed of the slave owners ... Restitution to the peasants of the land of which they have been deprived, a condition that still binds them to forced labour, to the rendering of corvée-service, i.e., that virtually keeps them in a state of serfdom. [9]

In the process of developing the agrarian program for the second Congress, Lenin formulated guidelines aimed at the abolition of all feudal relations in the countryside.

First. The agrarian revolution will necessarily be a part of the democratic revolution in Russia. The content of this revolution will be the liberation of the countryside from the relations of semi-feudal bondage. Second. In its social and economic aspect, the impending agrarian revolution will be a bourgeois-democratic revolution; it will not weaken but stimulate the development of capitalism and capitalist class contradictions. [10]

In addition to the non-controversial demands, which Lenin never amended – abolition of the social-estate taxation of the peasants, reduction of rents, freedom to use land at will – the agrarian program adopted at the second Congress contained a number of clauses demanding the refunding of land redemption payments and the restitution of cut-off lands. The latter (clause 4 of the program) was a key demand. It was justified as a means of eliminating one of the surviving features of feudalism:

Wherever the half-hearted nature of our Peasant Reform has led to serf-owning forms of farming surviving to this day, with the aid of land cut off from the peasants’ lands, the peasants are given the right to do away with these survivals once and for all, even by means of expropriation, the right to the “restitution of the cut-off lands.” [11]

Lenin reiterated and emphasised this point: “We maintain and shall endeavour to prove, that the demand for the restitution of the cut-off lands is the maximum that we can at present advance in our agrarian program.” [12] At the time, he argued that to go beyond the restitution of cut-off land would simply be to support small-scale farming against large-scale farming.

Generally speaking, it is not at all the task of the Social Democrats to develop, support, consolidate, let alone, multiply, small-scale farming and small property. [13]

Generally speaking, it is reactionary to support small property because such support is directed against large-scale capitalist economy and, consequently, retards social development, and obscures and glosses over the class struggle. In this case, however, we want to support small property not against capitalism but against serf-ownership. [14]

What about land nationalisation? At that time, in 1902, Lenin’s position was clear: “The demand for nationalisation of the land, while quite valid in principle and quite suitable at certain moments, is politically inexpedient at the present moment.” [15] If the aim of the agrarian revolution was to eliminate feudal relations, then not all the landowners’ land should be taken away from them, in particular, not the part used for capitalist farming and employing wage labour.



Lenin Learns from Gapon

However, the breadth and depth of the peasant uprising in the 1905 Revolution made it clear that Lenin’s 1903 program was far too conservative. It is quite interesting to see how eager he was to find out about the mood of the peasants at the time and whether the demand for restitution of cut-off lands suited these moods, even from the priest Gapon, and from an accidental visitor, a sailor named Matinshenko. Krupskaya relates how a student sitting in Lenin’s room

commenced a dissertation on why the Social Democratic program was correct, expounding it point by point, with the ardour of the novice ... The young chap went on reading out the Program. At that moment Gapon and Matinshenko came in. Just as I was about to get tea for them as well, the young man arrived at the paragraph dealing with the restoration of the “pieces of land” to the peasants. After reading this point, he explained that the peasants could not go farther than the fight for this land, whereupon Gapon and Matinshenko became infuriated and shouted: “All land to the people!” [16]

This must have made a big impression on Lenin, for Krupskaya goes on to relate:

At the December conference in Tammerfors, Ilyich tabled a motion to drop completely from the program this point on the peasants’ land. In its place a paragraph was inserted on the support to be given to the revolutionary measures of the peasantry, including even confiscation of landowners’ estates and official, church, monastic, and crown lands. [17]

He made no attempt to cover up his own past errors:

In 1903, when the second Congress of our party adopted the first agrarian program of the RSDLP, we did not yet have such experience as would enable us to judge the character, breadth, and depth of the peasant movement. The peasant risings in South Russia in the spring of 1902 remained sporadic outbursts. One can therefore understand the restraint shown by the Social Democrats in drafting the agrarian program [18]

Without the experience of a mass – indeed, more than that – of a nationwide peasant movement, the program of the Social Democratic Labour Party could not become concrete. [19]

The 1903 program attempts to define concretely the nature and terms of the “revision” about which the Social Democrats in 1885 spoke only in a general way. That attempt – in the main item of the program, dealing with the cut-off lands – was based upon a tentative distinction between lands which serve for exploitation by means of serfdom and bondage (lands “cut off” in 1861) and lands which are exploited in a capitalist manner. Such a tentative distinction was quite fallacious, because, in practice, the peasant mass movement could not be directed against particular categories of landlord estates, but only against landlordism in general. [20]

After 1905, there was no justification at all for continuing with this narrowness and conservatism: “At the present time to reject the demand for confiscation of all the landed estates would obviously mean restricting the scope of a social movement which has taken definite shape.” [21]

At the Tammerfors conference of the Bolsheviks (December 12–17, 1905), Lenin put forward the following resolution:

The conference holds that it is desirable to amend the agrarian program of our party as follows: to delete the clause on cut-off lands; to declare, instead, that the party supports the revolutionary measures of the peasantry, including the confiscation of all state, church, monastery, crown and privately owned land. [22]



For Nationalisation of the Land

Lenin went on from this to a further revision of the agrarian program, in which he raised the slogan of nationalisation of all the land. In his pamphlet Revision of the Agrarian Program of the Workers’ Party, written in March 1906, he writes:

If ... the decisive victory of the present revolution in Russia brings about the complete sovereignty of the people, i.e., establishes a republic and a fully democratic state system, the party will seek the abolition of private ownership of land and the transfer of all the land to the whole people as common property. [23]

The strength of the peasant movement against the landowners also taught Lenin that in 1903 he had overestimated the extent to which capitalist development had taken hold in the countryside. Feudal relations were not mere remnants, as he had then assumed, but exercised great influence throughout the rural situation. In his book The Agrarian Program of Social Democracy in the First Russian Revolution, 1905–1907, he points this out.

The mistake of our cut-off-lands program of 1903 ... was due to the fact that while we correctly defined the trend of development, we did not correctly define the moment of that development. We assumed that the elements of capitalist agriculture had already taken full shape in Russia, both in landlord farming (minus the cut-off lands and their conditions of bondage – hence the demand that the cut-off lands be returned to the peasants) and in peasant farming, which seemed to have given rise to a strong peasant bourgeoisie and therefore to be incapable of bringing about a “peasant agrarian revolution.” The erroneous program was the result ... of an overestimation of the degree of capitalist development in Russian agriculture. The survivals of serfdom appeared to us then to be a minor detail, whereas capitalist agriculture on the peasant allotments and on the landlords’ estates seemed to be quite mature and well-established ... We rectified the mistake by substituting for the partial aim of combating the survivals of the old agrarian system, the aim of combating the old agrarian system as a whole. Instead of purging landlord economy, we set the aim of abolishing it. [24]



Learn from the Dark Muzhik

During the years of the revolution, 1905–07, Lenin considered it important to learn from the Russian muzhik. Even the monarchist peasant representatives in the Tsarist Duma taught Lenin that deep beneath the conservative shell there was in fact a revolutionary kernel. He refers with enthusiasm to the speech of the monarchist right-wing peasant Storchak to the Tsarist Duma:

He begins his speech by repeating in full the words of Nicholas II about “the sacred rights of property,” the impermissibility of their “infringement”, etc. He continues: “May God grant the Emperor health. He spoke well for the whole people” ... And he finishes: “But if His Majesty said that there should be justice and order, then, of course if I am sitting on 3 desiatins of land, and next to me there are 30,000 desiatins that is not order and justice.” [25]

And Lenin comments:

An ignorant peasant ... is as innocent as a babe unborn and amazingly ignorant politically. The link between the monarchy and “order”, i.e., the disorder and injustice which protect the owners of 30,000 desiatins, is not clear to him [26]

Storchak, and the deputies who at bottom share his views – the priest Titov, Andreichuk, Popov IV and Niktyuk – express the revolutionary temper of the peasant mass unconsciously, spontaneously, afraid themselves not only to speak out, but even to think out what their words and proposals imply. [27]

He goes on to quote other peasant speakers in the Duma:

Tomilov: “The only way out ... in our opinion, is this: the land should be redistributed at once, in all the village communes of Russia, on the basis of a census similar to those previously carried out; this census should establish the number of male persons as on November 3, 1905.

The fond dream of the peasant is to get land and freedom, but we have heard that so long as the present government is in power, landed property is inviolable. (Voices in the Center: “Private property.”) Yes, private, noblemen’s property. (Voices in the Center: “And yours too.”) As far as we are concerned, we are prepared to give up our allotments ... I will say that the peasants in any village are willing to give up their allotments, unit for unit, and to become equal. The statement of the representative of the ministry amounts to this, that so long as power has not passed into the hands of the peasantry and the people generally, the peasants will not see either the land or political liberties. Thank you for your frankness, though we knew it already.” [28]

Petrov III: “Remember, gentlemen, the times of the reign of Alexei Mikhailovich, and the protest of the peasant people which expressed itself in the movement under the leadership of Razin. [1*] (Voices on the Right : “O-ho!”) ... The people most strongly expressed its demands in 1905. Then, too, poverty made the people come out into the street and say their imperious say about what they needed ... All the land must pass into equalised tenure of all the people ... I am of course an opponent of private property in land ... and I say that the working people will not get an easier time until all the land passes into their hands ... I am absolutely convinced you will see once again the depths of the sea of life disturbed. And then the saying of the Testament will come true: He who lifts the sword shall perish by the sword (laughter on the Right). The Trudovik [peasant] group has not changed its ideals and has not changed its aspirations ... We ... say: All the land to those who work on it, and all power to the working people!”

Merzlyakov: “The land must belong to those who till it ... Only there mustn’t be any land racket in Russia, and the land should belong to those who till it by their own labour.” [29]

The peasant Nechitailo says: “The people who have drunk the blood and sucked the brains of the peasants call them ignorant.” Golovin interrupted: The landlord can insult the peasant, but the peasant insulting the landlord? “These lands that belong to the people – we are told: buy them. Are we foreigners, who have arrived from England, France, and so forth? This is our country, why should we have to buy our own land? We have already paid for it 10 times over with blood, sweat, and money.”

Here is what the peasant Kirnosov (Saratov Gubernia) says: “Nowadays we talk of nothing but the land; again we are told: it is sacred, inviolable. In my opinion it cannot be inviolable; if the people wish it, nothing can be inviolable. (A voice from the Right: “Oh-ho!”) Yes, oh-ho! (Applause on the Left.) Gentlemen of the nobility, do you think we do not know when you used us as stakes in your card games, when you bartered us for dogs? We do. It was all your sacred, inviolable property ... You stole the land from us ... The peasants who sent me here said this: The land is ours. We have come here not to buy it, but to take it.”

Here is what the peasant Vasyutin (Kharkov Gubernia) says: “We see here in the person of the Chairman of the Council of Ministers, not the minister of the whole country, but the minister of 130,000 landlords. Ninety million peasants are nothing to him ... You [addressing the Right] are exploiters, you lease your land out at exorbitant rents and skin the peasant alive ... Know that if the government fails to meet the people’s needs, the people will not ask for your consent, they will take the land ... I am a Ukrainian [he relates that Catherine made Potemkin a gift of a little estate of 27,000 desiatins with 2,000 serfs] ... Formerly land was sold at 25 to 50 roubles per desiatin, but now the rent is 15 to 30 roubles per desiatin, and the rent of hayland is 35 to 50 roubles. I call that fleecery. (A voice from the Right: “What? Fleecery?” Laughter.) Yes, don’t get excited (applause on the Left); I call it skinning the peasants alive.” [30]

Lenin comments on the peasant deputies’ speeches that they

express the spirit of the peasants’ mass struggle outspokenly ... the speeches of the Trudovik peasants, who state their views forthrightly, [are] conveying the moods and aspirations of the masses with amazing precision and liveliness, mixing up programs (some speak of their sympathy with the Bill of the 42 peasants, others of sympathy with the Cadets), but all the more strongly expressing what lies deeper than any programs. [31]

He goes even further and sees much greater revolutionary fervour in the speeches of the peasants’ deputies than in those of the Social Democrat workers’ deputies.

Comparing the speeches of the revolutionary peasants in the second Duma with those of the revolutionary workers, one is struck by the following difference: The former are imbued with a far more spontaneous revolutionary spirit, a passionate desire to destroy the landlord regime immediately, and immediately to create a new system. The peasant is eager to fling himself upon the enemy at once and to strangle him. [32]

Lenin showed a remarkable freedom from dogmatism, and a feeling for the real heartbeat of the mass movement, even if it was to be found in the chest of a monarchist peasant!



Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and the Peasantry

During the elections to the second Duma, a fierce struggle went on between the two wings of Social Democracy, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, on the question of whether to enter into an alliance with the Cadets, or with the Trudoviks against the Cadets.

As early as 1892, Plekhanov had argued that the peasant in Russia, as in the West, was fundamentally conservative. “Apart from the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, we perceive no social forces in our country in which opposition or revolutionary groups could find support.” [33]

In a pamphlet entitled The Duty of Socialists in the Famine, Plekhanov wrote:

The proletarian and the muzhik are real political antipodes. The historical role of the proletariat is as revolutionary as that of the muzhik is conservative. It was upon the peasants that Oriental despotisms sustained themselves unchanged for thousands of years. In a comparatively short time the proletariat has shaken the whole foundation of Western European society. And in Russia its development and political education is progressing incomparably more rapidly than it did in the West. [34]

This line of argument influenced the Mensheviks’ attitude to the liberal party – the Cadets – on the one hand, and the peasant party – the Trudoviks – on the other.

The Menshevik D. Koltsov argued the case for an alliance with the Cadets as against an alliance with the Trudoviks in the following terms:

With whom have the Social Democrats the greater number of points of contact, with urban or rural democracy? From whom can Social Democracy the sooner expect support in its struggle against cultural, religious, national and other prejudices? Who will the sooner support all measures likely to liberate the productive forces? It is only necessary to raise these questions, which are basic in Social Democratic policy, for the answer to be clear of itself. Everything in The Communist Manifesto concerning the revolutionary role of the bourgeois remains as true in the 20th century as it was in the 19th, as true for Russia as it was for England ... As far as rural democracy is concerned it will in many cases defend old, outworn modes of production and social organisation, despite its revolutionary gallop. [35]

Lenin opposed this argument as follows:

The Bolshevik wing of the party regards the liberals as representatives of big industry, who are striving to put an end to the revolution as quickly as possible for fear of the proletariat, and are entering into a compromise with the reactionaries. This wing regards the Trudoviks as revolutionary petty-bourgeois democrats, and is of the opinion that they are inclined to adopt a radical position on a land question of such importance to the peasantry, the question of the confiscation of the landed estates. This accounts for the tactics of the Bolsheviks. They reject support for the treacherous liberal bourgeoisie, i.e., the Cadets, and do their utmost to get the democratic petty bourgeoisie away from the influence of the liberals; they want to draw the peasant and the urban petty bourgeois away from the liberals and muster them behind the proletariat, behind the vanguard, for the revolutionary struggle. [36]

... one Cadet stated that a right-wing peasant was more left than the Cadets. Yes, on the agrarian question the stand of the “right” peasants in all three Dumas has been more left than the Cadets’, thereby proving that the monarchism of the muzhik is naiveté that is dying out, in contrast to the monarchism of the liberal businessmen, who are monarchists through class calculation. [37]

In the anti-feudal, democratic revolution, Lenin favoured an alliance of the proletarian party with the petty-bourgeois peasant democratic parties:

The revolutionary-democratic parties and organisations (the Socialist-Revolutionary Party, the Peasant Union, some of the semi-trade union and semi-political organisations, etc.) most closely express the interests and point of view of the broad masses of the peasantry and petty bourgeoisie, strongly opposing landlordism and the semi-feudal state, consistently striving for democracy and clothing their virtually bourgeois-democratic aims in a more or less nebulous socialist ideology; and the Social Democratic Party deems it possible and necessary to enter into fighting agreements with these parties, while at the same time systematically exposing their pseudo-socialist character and combating their attempts to obscure the class antithesis between the proletarian and the small proprietor. [38]

Let us hasten and make clear that for Lenin the slogan of land nationalisation did not mean going beyond the bourgeois democratic revolution. He explains that there are two paths open to capitalist development in the Russian countryside – the first impeded and distorted by feudal survivals, which he called the Prussian path; the second free of all relics of serfdom, which he called the American path of development:

In the first case feudal landlord economy slowly evolves into bourgeois, Junker landlord economy, which condemns the peasants to decades of most harrowing expropriation and bondage, while at the same time a small minority of Grossbauern (“big peasants”) arises ... To facilitate the development of the productive forces (this highest criterion of social progress) we must support not bourgeois evolution of the landlord type, but bourgeois evolution of the peasant type. The former implies the utmost preservation of bondage and serfdom (remodeled on bourgeois lines), the least rapid development of productive force, and the retarded development of capitalism; it implies infinitely greater misery and suffering, exploitation and oppression for the broad mass of the peasantry and, consequently, also for the proletariat. The second type implies the most rapid development of the productive forces and the best possible (under commodity production) conditions of existence for the mass of the peasantry. The tactics of Social Democracy in the Russian bourgeois revolution are determined not by the task of supporting the liberal bourgeoisie, as the opportunists think, but by the task of supporting the fighting peasantry. [39]

Revolutionaries ought to aim at leading Russia along the American path. Therefore, they must support land nationalisation as the most extreme and consistent way of getting rid of surviving features of feudalism. “In the Russian revolution the struggle for the land is nothing else than a struggle for the renovated path of capitalist development. The consistent slogan of such a renovation is – nationalisation of the land.” [40]

In support of his thesis, Lenin refers to Marx, who “allowed the possibility of, and sometimes directly advocated, the nationalisation of the land, not only in the epoch of the bourgeois revolution in Germany in 1848, but also in 1846 for America, which, as he most accurately pointed out at that time, was only just starting its ‘industrial’ development.” [41]

A couple of years later, in 1908, Lenin reiterates this view:

There is nothing more erroneous than the opinion that the nationalisation of the land has anything in common with socialism, or even with equalised land tenure. Socialism, as we know, means the abolition of commodity economy. Nationalisation, on the other hand, means converting the land into the property of the state, and such a conversion does not in the least affect private farming on the land. [42]



Nationalisation of the Land: The First Step Toward Socialism?

Lenin went into great detail to explain why land nationalisation was part and parcel of the bourgeois revolution. For instance, in his book The Agrarian Program of Social Democracy in the First Russian Revolution, 1905–1907, written in November-December 1907, he says:

After the period of revolutionary nationalisation the demand for division may be evoked by the desire to consolidate to the greatest possible degree the new agrarian relations, which meet the requirements of capitalism. It may be evoked by the desire of the given owners of land to increase their incomes at the expense of the rest of society. Finally, it may be evoked by the desire to “quieten” (or, plainly speaking, to put down) the proletariat and the semi-proletarian strata, for whom nationalisation of the land will be an element that will “whet the appetite” for the socialisation of the whole of social production [43]

... nothing is capable of so thoroughly sweeping away the survivals of medievalism in Russia, of so thoroughly renovating the rural districts, which are in a state of Asiatic semi-decay, of so rapidly promoting agricultural progress, as nationalisation. Any other solution of the agrarian question in the revolution would create less favourable starting-points for further economic development.

The moral significance of nationalisation in the revolutionary epoch is that the proletariat helps to strike a blow at “one form of private property” which must inevitably have its repercussion all over the world. [44]

But land nationalisation, while part and parcel of the bourgeois revolution, can, depending on the balance of class forces, be a springboard in the struggle for socialism in the countryside. In September 1917, in a postscript to the second edition of The Agrarian Program of Social Democracy (the first edition of 1908 was confiscated by the police), Lenin wrote: “Nationalisation of the land is not only ‘the last word’ of the bourgeois revolution, but also a step towards socialism.” [45]

In all his forecasts about the Russian Revolution, Lenin displayed a complete lack of dogmatism and the greatest readiness to push the revolution beyond its bourgeois limitations into an immediate and uninterrupted struggle for socialism.



The Proletariat Versus the Peasantry

Throughout the development of the agrarian policy of the party, there are two central points in Lenin’s thinking: (1) the working class must lead the peasantry; (2) the workers’ party has to keep itself independent and clearly demarcated from the peasantry:

... supporting the revolutionary peasant, the proletariat must not for a moment forget about its own class independence and its own special class aims. The peasant movement is the movement of another class. It is not a proletarian struggle, but a struggle waged by small proprietors. It is not a struggle against the foundations of capitalism, but a struggle to cleanse them of all survivals of serfdom. [46]

We stand by the peasant movement to the end; but we have to remember that it is the movement of another class, not the one which can and will bring about the socialist revolution. [47]

Without the initiative and guidance of the proletariat the peasantry counts for nothing. [48]

Lenin discussed the possible development of an independent peasant party, in the form of a coalition of Trudoviks and Social Revolutionaries, but he doubted their stability and ability to achieve homogeneity.

No one at this stage can tell what forms bourgeois democracy in Russia will assume in the future. Possibly, the bankruptcy of the Cadets may lead to the formation of a peasant democratic party, a truly mass party, and not an organisation of terrorists such as the Socialist-Revolutionaries have been and still are. It is also possible that the objective difficulties of achieving political unity among the petty bourgeoisie will prevent such a party from being formed and, for a long time to come, will keep the peasant democracy in its present state as a loose, amorphous, jelly-like Trudovik mass. [49]

The Trudoviks are definitely not fully consistent democrats. The Trudoviks (including the Socialist-Revolutionaries) undoubtedly vacillate between the liberals and the revolutionary proletariat. Such vacillation is by no means fortuitous. It is an inevitable consequence of the very nature of the economic condition of the small producer. On the one hand, he is oppressed and subject to exploitation. He is unconsciously impelled into the fight against this position, into the fight for democracy, for the ideas of abolishing exploitation. On the other hand, he is a petty proprietor. In the peasant lives the instinct of a proprietor – if not of today, then of tomorrow. It is the proprietor’s, the owner’s instinct that repels the peasant from the proletariat, engendering in him an aspiration to become someone in the world, to become a bourgeois, to hem himself in against all society on his own plot of land, on his own dungheap. [50]

... the democratic elements of the peasantry ... [are] incapable of forming a solid organisation. [51]



So Wrong and So Right

The victory of 1917 proved Lenin wrong about the Russian Revolution in two major respects – his arguments that it would be a bourgeois revolution and that nationalisation of the land would be a springboard for wider and speedier capitalist economic development. How then did Lenin manage to play so decisive a role in the victory of this same revolution? The answer is basically that even in his mistakes regarding perspectives, there was a central core of strategy and tactics that led directly to just such a victory of the proletarian revolution:

... even if our revolution is bourgeois in its economic content (this cannot be doubted), the conclusion must not be drawn from it that the leading role in our revolution is played by the bourgeoisie, that the bourgeoisie is its motive force. Such a conclusion, usual with Plekhanov and the Mensheviks, is a vulgarisation of Marxism, a caricature of Marxism. The leader of the bourgeois revolution may be either the liberal landlord together with the factory-owner, merchant, lawyer, etc., or the proletariat together with the peasant masses. In both cases the bourgeois character of the revolution remains, but its scope, the degree of its advantage to the proletariat, the degree of its advantage to socialism (that is, to the rapid development of the productive forces, first and foremost) are completely different in the two cases.

From this, the Bolsheviks deduce the basic tactics of the socialist proletariat in the bourgeois revolution – to carry with them a democratic petty bourgeoisie, draw them away from the liberals, paralyse the instability of the liberal bourgeoisie, and develop the struggle of the masses for the complete abolition of all traces of serfdom, including landed proprietorship. [52]

Lenin consistently argued that although the revolution was bourgeois-democratic by nature, the peasantry must show the maximum initiative and democracy by creating independent local organisations for struggle without waiting for deliverance from above, even from national institutions born of the revolution, such as the future Constituent Assembly.

There is only one way to make the agrarian reform, which is unavoidable in present-day Russia, play a revolutionary democratic role: it must be effected on the revolutionary initiative of the peasants themselves, despite the landlords and the bureaucracy, and despite the state, i.e., it must be effected by revolutionary means ... And this is the road we indicate when we make our prime demand the establishment of revolutionary peasant committees. [53]

Marx argued after the experience of the Paris Commune that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purpose”; the proletariat has “to smash it and this is the precondition for every real people’s revolution.” Lenin’s argument echoed this: “The peasantry cannot carry out an agrarian revolution without abolishing the old regime, the standing army and the bureaucracy, because all these are the most reliable mainstays of landlordism, bound to it by thousands of ties.” [54]

Moreover, even if the revolution was only bourgeois-democratic, it still had an international character:

The Russian revolution can achieve victory by its own efforts, but it cannot possibly hold and consolidate its gains by its own strength. It cannot do this unless there is a socialist revolution in the West ... After the complete victory of the democratic revolution the small proprietor will inevitably turn against the proletariat; and the sooner the common enemies of the proletariat and of the small proprietors, such as the capitalists, the landlords and the financial bourgeoisie, and so forth are overthrown, the sooner will this happen. Our democratic republic has no other reserve than the socialist proletariat in the West. [55]

A relentless struggle against the liberal bourgeoisie; mistrust of the vacillating peasant party and independence from it; the call for direct action on the part of the peasants; the fight to smash the old bureaucratic police-state machine; the emphasis on the international character of the revolution – all these ideas rooted in the 1905–07 revolution were central to the policies that led to the victory of 1917. Their bourgeois-democratic wrapping was to be discarded in the storm of future battles. Unfortunately, the contradiction between the consistent revolutionary kernel of Lenin’s policies in 1905 and afterwards and its bourgeois-democratic shell was to be a factor in the party crises and the paralysis of the Bolshevik leadership days and weeks after the February Revolution of 1917, before Lenin returned to Russia to counter his own “old Bolshevik” formulation.




1*. Razin Stepan was the outstanding leader of the 1667-71 peasant revolt in Russia against feudal oppression and serfdom.



1. G.T. Robinson, Rural Russia under the Old Regime, London 1932, pp.155-6.

2. L.O. Owen, The Russian Peasant Movement, 1906-17, London 1937, p.20.

3. Trotsky, 1905, op. cit., p.188

4. ibid., pp.189-90.

5. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.13, p.227.

6. ibid., p.256.

7. ibid.

8. ibid.

9. ibid., vol.4, pp.44-5.

10. ibid., vol.10, p.170.

11. ibid., vol.6, pp.127-8.

12. ibid., p.132.

13. ibid., p.133.

14. ibid., p.134.

15. ibid., p.140.

16. Krupskaya, Memories, op. cit., p.110.

17. ibid.

18. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.13, p.257.

19. ibid., p.256.

20. ibid., pp.256-7.

21. ibid., vol.10, p.177.

22. ibid., p.88.

23. ibid., pp.194-5.

24. ibid., vol.13, pp.291–2.

25. ibid., vol.15, p.309.

26. ibid., vol.15, p.310.

27. ibid., p.311.

28. ibid., p.313.

29. ibid., p.313-4.

30. ibid., vol.13, pp.398–9.

31. ibid., vol.15, p.311.

32. ibid., vol.13, p.398.

33. Plekhanov, Sochineniia, op. cit., vol.3, p.119.

34. ibid., pp.382–83.

35. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.12, p.189.

36. ibid., p.203.

37. ibid., vol.13, p.458.

38. ibid., vol.10 pp.158-9.

39. ibid., vol.13, pp.243-4.

40. ibid., pp.292-3.

41. ibid., pp.319-0.

42. ibid., vol.15, p.138.

43. ibid., vol.13, p.323.

44. ibid., pp.324-5.

45. ibid., p.430.

46. ibid., vol.10, p.411.

47. ibid., p.191.

48. ibid., vol.15, p.59.

49. ibid., vol.13, p.121.

50. ibid., vol.12, p.467.

51. ibid., vol.15, p.349.

52. ibid., vol.12, pp.181–2.

53. ibid., vol.9, p.315.

54. ibid., vol.13, p.349.

55. ibid., vol.10, p.280.


Last updated on 10.12.2003