The Russian Poor Peasants' Committees - were they a "failure"?
The Activist - Volume 14, Number 5, December 2004
By Doug Lorimer, Sydney branch
In his otherwise well-argued article ‘The `Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat Peasantry: Permanent Revolution Vietnam’ in Activist Vol. 14, No. 4, Comrade Mike Karadjis wrote:
According to Siegelbaum (Soviet State and Society Between Revolutions, Cambridge Uni Press, 1992, pp. 43-44), the ‘poor peasant committees’ had been a failure; there had been no second stage of the revolution in the countryside. I think this is probably correct, judging both by what happened next and what has happened elsewhere in the world. Peasant society actually has a great deal of resilience. It was highly unlikely that, just following the land reform of late 1917 that capitalism had been unable to take hold, develop productive forces, create social differentiation and provoke rural worker class consciousness for struggle against an agricultural bourgeoisie all in eight months. Whatever grievances poor peasants still had with their rich neighbours, according to Seiglebaum, "they viewed as a family affair (sometimes literally) to be sorted out in the village."' He may be exaggerating, but it also rings true of many peasant societies.
If this were true, i.e., there had not been a split between the rich and poor peasants in 1918 and therefore no second, proletarian-socialist, stage of the revolution in the countryside (where 80% of Russia's population lived), then Lenin's policy of two-stage, uninterrupted revolution would stand refuted by the actual march of events in Russia. As Lenin himself noted in his late 1918 pamphlet The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, Lenin pointed out that prior to 1917 the Bolsheviks had advocated that the urban-based proletariat had to forge an alliance with the peasantry as whole (i.e., with the rich, middle and poor peasants) to seize state power and carry through to completion the anti-feudal bourgeois-democratic revolution.
Further, the Bolsheviks then added, the proletariat will win over the entire semi-proletariat (all the working and exploited people), will neutralise the middle peasants and overthrow the bourgeoisie; this will be a socialist revolution, as distinct from a bourgeois-democratic revolution. (See my pamphlet Two Tactics, published in 1905 and reprinted in Twelve Years, St Petersburg, 1907)…
Now, if the Bolshevik proletariat in the capitals and large industrial centres had not been able to rally the village poor around itself against the rich peasants, this would indeed have proved that Russia was ‘unripe’ for socialist revolution. The peasants would have remained an ‘integral whole’, i.e., they would have remained under the economic, political, and moral leadership of the kulaks, the rich, the bourgeoisie, and the revolution would not have passed beyond the limits of a bourgeois-democratic revolution.1
Class struggle the key to uninterrupted revolution
Clearly, the Bolshevik Revolution did pass beyond the limits of a bourgeois-democratic revolution to a proletarian-socialist revolution. However, Comrade Karadjis suggests that in the countryside it did not. Unfortunately, he provides us with no evidence to support this claim, other than the opinion of one Western academic that the poor peasants' committees "had been a failure" and the surmise that it:
was highly unlikely that, just following the land reform of late 1917 that capitalism had been unable to take hold, develop productive forces, create social differentiation and provoke rural worker class consciousness for struggle against an agricultural bourgeoisie all in eight months.
But Lenin's policy of a two stage, uninterrupted revolution was never premised on the socialist stage of the Russian Revolution on the capitalist development of agrarian productive forces in the wake of a bourgeois land reform. He had always argued that the completion of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, particularly the peasants’ confiscation of the semi-feudal landed states would lead to the burgeoning of a new class struggle in the countryside - pitting the rural semi-proletariat (the poor peasants) against the peasant bourgeoisie. And that on the basis of this class struggle, the urban-based proletariat could forge an anti-capitalist alliance with the poor peasants, moving to expropriate bourgeois property in both the industrial centres and the villages.
Thus in his 1905 article ‘Social Democracy's Attitude to the Peasant Movement’, he wrote:
… from the democratic revolution we shall at once, and precisely in accordance with the measure of our strength, the strength of the class-conscious and organised proletariat, begin to pass to the socialist revolution. We stand or uninterrupted revolution. We shall not stop halfway.
If we do not now and immediately promise all sorts of ‘socialisation’, that is because we know the actual conditions for that task to be accomplished, and we do not gloss over the new class struggle burgeoning within the peasantry, but reveal that struggle…
To try to calculate now what the combination of forces will be within the peasantry ‘on the day after’ the revolution (the democratic revolution) is empty utopianism… we shall bend every effort to help the entire peasantry achieve the democratic revolution in order thereby to make it easier for us, the party of the proletariat, to pass on as quickly as possible to the new and higher task - the socialist revolution.2
There's not a mention here of the capitalist development of the productive forces being the precondition for advancing from the bourgeois-democratic revolution to the socialist revolution - since if that had been what Lenin had thought it required, he would not have advocated a perspective of uninterrupted revolution; he would have agreed with the Mensheviks that the bourgeois-democratic revolution and the socialist revolution would be separated by decades of capitalist economic development (under the rule of the capitalist class). Instead, the "actual conditions" that Lenin pointed to for moving uninterruptedly from the democratic revolution to the socialist revolution was the "strength" of the proletariat (its level of organisation and class-consciousness) and a change in the alignment of class forces within the peasantry following the confiscation of the landed estates - with the poor peasants ceasing to be united with the rich peasants against the semi-feudal landowners and a new class struggle breaking out between the rich and poor peasants.
The tasks of the poor peasants' committees
After the above-quoted paragraph in which he endorsed the claim that the poor peasant committees were a "failure", Comrade Karadjis wrote: "Lenin had already given up on those poor peasant committees long before the NEP, instead encouraging peasants to join ‘artels’ (agricultural associations) and ‘communy’." The suggestion seems to be that the poor peasants’ committees were set up to organise poor peasants into collective farms and failed in this task. However, the socialisation of farming was never the purpose of the poor peasants’ committees. They were created to organise the poor and middle peasants to break the political and economic domination of the kulaks - the peasant bourgeoisie, who exploited the poor peasants through loan capital (usury) and the hiring of poor peasants to work on the kulaks’ surplus land (land the rich peasant families were unable to work themselves). In this, they were successful. Lenin didn't "abandon" them. He and the other delegates at the Sixth All-Russia Congress of Soviets, held in early November 1918, on the eve of the first anniversary of the Bolshevik insurrection, voted to dissolve them-because they had fulfilled their tasks.
If the poor peasants’ committees had failed, then not only would the Bolshevik Revolution not passed beyond the limits of a bourgeois-democratic revolution, it is highly unlikely the Soviet government would have survived beyond 1918.
The Soviet Government's bourgeois-democratic land reform (largely completed by February 1918) abolished semi-feudal landed proprietorship (turning over 152 million hectares of land to the peasants), with the property of the peasant bourgeoisie (the kulaks) remaining untouched. The policy of the Soviet Government toward the kulaks at this time was get them to obey its decrees, particularly the state monopoly on the distribution of grain (a wartime measure inherited by the Soviet government from the bourgeois Provisional Government). However, the kulaks, who had large stocks of grain, refused to sell these to the Soviet state authorities, preferring to hoard them to push up the grain price on the black market. Furthermore, the Soviet Government could not use the local organs of state power in the countryside, the peasant soviets, to enforce its decrees on the kulaks since the kulaks dominated the peasant soviets. "In mid-1918, 58 percent of the members of the volost [rural district] Soviets were non-committed, the cloak usually used by kulaks; 23 per cent belonged to the Right-wing parties; and only 18 per cent were Bolsheviks and Left SRs."3
Despite the fact that there were adequate stocks of grain in the country as a result of the spring harvest, famine continued to ravage the country. Grain procurements by the People’s Commissariat of Food diminished from month to month. Petrograd and Moscow received only 8.1% of the quantity of grain planned for April and 5.7% of the planned supplies in May. Petrograd's last grain stocks were rationed out in early May.
On May 4, 1918 Lenin and People’s Commissar of Food Aleksandr Tyurupa sent out an alarming telegram to the Commissariat’s food collection committees and local railway officials:
The situation in Petrograd is unprecendently catastrophic. There is no bread… The Red Capital is on the brink of perishing from starvation. The counter-revolution is raising its head, directing the discontent of the hungry masses against Soviet power… In the name of the Soviet Socialist Republic we demand immediate aid for Petrograd.4
Factories whose output was vital to the Soviet Republic's defence began to close down as a result of the acute shortage of food. Workers began leaving the cities to find food in the countryside. A total of 1.5 million workers and their dependants left Petrograd and Moscow, while the number of workers showing up for work in the country's large-scale industry dropped by more than 50%. The proletariat's numerical and organisational strength was rapidly diminishing.
The shortage of grain supplies was also producing famine in the countryside among the poor peasants who, by definition, did not have enough land to provide sufficient food for themselves, and had to purchase it on the market, but who could not afford the exorbitant prices being charged by the kulaks and grain profiteers.
On May 20, the All-Russia Central Executive Committee (ARCEC) of the Soviets adopted a resolution declaring that it was urgent to "unite the working peasants against the rural bourgeoisie" to enforce the state grain monopoly. Two days later, Lenin wrote an open letter to the workers of Petrograd under the heading ‘On the Famine’ in which he set out what was at stake. He wrote:
Either the advanced and lass-conscious workers triumph and unite the poor peasant masses around themselves, establish rigorous order, a mercilessly severe rule, a genuine dictatorship of the proletariat - either they compel the kulaks to submit, and institute a proper distribution of food and fuel on a national scale… or the bourgeoisie, with the help of the kulaks, and with the indirect support of the spineless and muddle-headed (the anarchists and the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries) will overthrow Soviet power…
Either - or.
There is no middle course.5
He called on the Petrograd workers to organise a crusade against grain profiteers, kulaks, bribe-takers and usurers.
We need tens of thousands of advanced and steeled proletarians, class-conscious enough to explain matters to the millions of poor peasants… to assume the leadership of these millions… to bear in an organised way all the hardships of the crusade and take it to every corner of the country for the establishment of order, for the consolidation of the local organs of Soviet power.6
On May 27, the ARCEC decreed the resorganisation of the People’s Commissariat of Food and its local food committees. It decreed the setting up of special teams, made of up of workers recommended by Communist Party organisations, the trade unions or the urban soviets, to be sent to the grain-producing regions to organise the poor peasants against the kulaks. Between July 1918 and March 1919 some 40,000 class-conscious workers went into the countryside as members of these teams.
In early June a wave of kulak revolts swept the Russian countryside, with widespread killings of Soviet government officials and village activists. In response, on June 11, 1918, the ARCEC adopted a decree on the organisation of poor peasant committees, authorising them to confiscate not only the grain stocks hoarded by the kulaks, but the rich peasants’ surplus land, livestock and farm implements. It decreed that all peasants, with the exception of kulaks, could elect and be elected to the poor peasants’ committees.
The decree set down as the tasks of the poor peasants’ committees, the distribution of grain, prime necessities and farm implements, and assistance to the local food organs of the People’s Commissariat of Food in confiscating grain surpluses from rich peasants.
What the poor peasants’ committees accomplished
Led by teams of Communist and other class-conscious workers, the poor peasants’ committees not only began resolving the food problem, they also cleared the rural soviets of kulak elements through the holding of new elections in which, in accordance with the new constitution of the Russian Soviet Republic, approved by the Fifth All-Russia Congress of Soviets in July, excluded all those who hired labour from participation in the election of the soviets.
Where new elections to the rural soviets had not yet been held because of kulak resistance, a resolution of the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs of September 28, 1918, decreed that all the functions and resources of the rural soviets were to be temporarily turned over to the poor peasants’ committees. In many cases, the newly elected poor peasants’ committees simply became the new village soviets.
During the second half of 1918 the poor peasants’ committees confiscated 50 million hectares of land from the kulaks and turned it over to poor peasants, as a result of which the number of kulak farms sharply diminished. The kulaks’ landholdings decreased from 80 million hectares in October 1917 to 30 million hectares at the end of 1918.
Along with the confiscation and distribution to poor peasants of the kulaks’ surplus livestock and farm implements, this land redistribution produced a radical change in the class composition of the peasantry. There was a considerable improvement in the condition of the mass of poor peasants. In fact, most of them ceased to be semi-proletarians, becoming middle peasants, i.e., fully petty-bourgeois, able to produce with their own labour a small surplus to exchange on the commodity market. The bulk of the kulaks were also transformed into middle peasants.
The number of kulaks declined from 15% of the rural population in 1917 to 5% by the end of 1918. Over the same period, the number of poor peasants declined from 65% to 35% of the rural population, while the proportion of middle peasants increased from 20% to 60%.
With the assistance of the poor peasants’ committees, in the second half of 1918 the workers’ special food teams procured and dispatched enough grain to end starvation in the cities and to meet the food needs of the rapidly expanding Workers and Peasants' Red Army, 80% of whose ranks were drawn from the poor and middle peasantry.
The struggle to break the economic and political power of the peasant bourgeoisie over the semi-proletarian mass of the peasantry during the second half of 1918 involved fierce battles. It cost the lives of at least 20,000 worker and peasant activists. In July 1918 alone, more than 4000 local Soviet government officials and Communist Party cadre were killed by kulak gangs. Another 6000 were killed in September. Suppression of the kulak revolts cost the lives of 5000 members of Cheka units, and nearly 4500 members of the food teams.
Lenin’s view of the role of the poor peasants’ committees
Far from "abandoning" the poor peasants’ committees. Lenin attached enormous significance to their formation. In his late 1918 polemic against Karl Kautsky, Lenin wrote:
The victorious Bolshevik revolution meant the end of vacillation, meant the complete destruction of the monarchy and of the landlord system (which had not been destroyed before the October Revolution). We carried the bourgeois revolution to its conclusion. The peasants supported us as a whole. Their antagonism to the socialist proletariat could not reveal itself all at once. The soviets united the peasants in general. The class divisions among the peasants had not yet matured, had not yet come into the open.
That process took place in the summer and autumn of 1918… A wake of kulak revolts swept over Russia. The poor peasants learned, not from books or newspapers, but from life itself, that their interests were irreconcilably antagonistic to those of the kulaks, the rich, the rural bourgeoisie…
All who are familiar with the situation and have been in the rural districts declare that it is only now, in the summer and autumn of 1918, that the rural districts themselves are passing through the "October" (i.e., proletarian) Revolution. Things are beginning to change. The wave of kulak revolts is giving way to a rise of the poor, to a growth of the ‘poor peasants’ committees’… At the very time that the simple-minded Kautsky, frightened by the July (1918) crisis and the lamentations of the bourgeoisie, was running after the latter like a cockerel, and writing a whole pamphlet breathing the conviction that the Bolsheviks are on the eve of being overthrown by the peasants; at the very time that this simpleton regarded the secession of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries as a ‘narrowing’ (p. 37) of the circle of those who support the Bolsheviks - at that very time the real circle of supporters of Bolshevism was expanding enormously, because scores and scores of millions of the village poor were freeing themselves from the tutelage and influence of the kulaks and village bourgeoisie and were awakening to independent political life…
A year after the proletarian revolution in the capitals, and under its influence and with its assistance, the proletarian revolution began in the remote rural districts, and it has fully consolidated the power of the soviets and Bolshevism, and has finally proved there is no force in the country that can withstand it.7
In the main report of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks), which he presented to the party’s eighth congress in March 1919, Lenin stated:
In a country where the peasantry could only assume power with the aid of the peasantry, where the proletariat had to serve as the agent of a petty-bourgeois revolution, our revolution was largely a bourgeois revolution until the Poor Peasants’ Committees were set up, i.e, until the summer and even autumn of 1918… But the moment the Poor Peasants’ Committees began to be organised, our revolution became a proletarian revolution… only when the October Revolution began to spread to the rural districts and was consummated, in the summer of 1918, did we acquire a real proletarian base; only then did our revolution become a proletarian revolution in fact, and not merely in our proclamations, promises and declarations.8
Thus, far from being a failure, the work of the poor peasants’ committees was crucial to the survival of the Soviet power in 1918 and laid the sociopolitical basis for Bolsheviks’ subsequent victory against the imperialist-backed, counter-revolutionary armies in the 1918-20 Russian Civil War.
- Lenin, Democracy and Revolution (Resistance Books, 2001), pp. 92, 100.
- Lenin, Collected Works (Progress Publishers, 1964), Vol. 9, pp. 296-97.
- P. N. Sobolev, et. al., The Great October Socialist Revolution (Progress Publishers, 1977), p. 401.
- Ibid., p. 483.
- Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 27, p. 394.
- Lenin, ibid., p. 396.
- Lenin, Democracy and Revolution, pp. 98-100.
- Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 29, p. 157.