The Bolsheviks and the Peasantry

The Russian Revolution was in itself a contradiction. Marx had pointed out that the interests of the peasantry, as a class, are contradictory to the interests of the working class. The peasantry need and want only one thing, freedom to own their own land, to be free of the landlord. Once this achieved they become an intensely conservative force. They have no interest in or any desire for socialism. Yet the Revolution was formed out of on alliance of the smaller working class and the massive peasantry. The interests of the two classes coincided on two things – the end of the War and the overthrow of Tsarism and the feudal Russian state – “ Peace, land, bread”.

The Civil War threw up further contradictions, the peasantry formed the bulk of Red Army led by the workers of Petrograd, Moscow etc. Yet they had no military expertise, the political commissars might be ex workers but they had no military experience, that expertise was found by recruiting former Tsarist officers.

The war in the name of the Workers and Peasants could only be won by the Workers declaring war on the peasants – which was the essence of War Communism.

The war, having been won, left the Bolsheviks with another contradiction. The revolutionary workers whom the Bolsheviks represented had themselves been atomised by the war. A starving famine stricken country, idle factories with no workers, the revolutionary soviets, supposedly representing workers’ democracy empty shells and international isolation. Yet the Bolsheviks are still in charge representing the ideals of socialism leading a non existent working class.

For the Bolsheviks there was only one Marxist answer. If the revolution was truly part of an international movement then the overthrow of capitalism would resolve the contradiction.

In a socialist Europe or better still a socialist world, the peasantry of Russia would be a minority, a problem that could be overcome gradually and without violence.

It is underestimated today how important this debate was at the time. One of the most interesting things I have read about this period is “ The Memoirs of a Bolshevik- Leninist “ a piece of samizdat writing that was published in 1974, having been smuggled out of the Soviet Union. The writer was active in the Civil war and served initially as code decipherer in Trotsky’s war room. He accompanied Trotsky on his travels on the train/ mobile HQ. After the war he was one of Trotsky’s staff and witnessed many of meetings of the Opposition. He was arrested in 1934 and was sent into exile to a work camp with other Oppositionists – later joined by right opposionists from Bukharin’s following. He was released in 1941 because of his military experience – the Trotskyists, or Bolshevik- Leninists as they called themselves having declared from imprisonment that they would support the war effort. He was rearrested in 1946 and sent to Vorkuta and not released until the thaw in 1962.

Sorry about the digression but his “rank and file” eyewitness account of the struggle in 1920’s centred around the issue of “ internationalism vs Stalin’s “ national “ socialism. They regarded this question as fundamental.

This contradiction of interest led to the many mistakes made but where any option was possibly wrong.

People often bring up the issue of Kronstadt – a bad mistake – probably, certainly a bloody and inhuman action, but had they not suppressed the rebellion, would it have undermined the war effort? Their problem was military opposition in the middle of a war. The background of this was also the Workers Opposition an influential faction in the party demanding the return of democracy in the soviets, inevitably involving the freedom for other political parties to compete. Lenin and Trotsky were united in defeating and expelling this faction – no bloodshed involved – but Kronstadt was its military expression and bloodshed was involved. A mistake? Or a mistake not to suppress the WO and allow free elections to soviets? The invasion of Poland, a mistaken belief that the Polish workers would join the revolution or a nationalist enterprise? Clearly, in my view a bad mistake by Lenin and Trotsky.

NEP was introduced to feed the country, to give the peasants what they wanted. The freedom to grow food and sell it in the market. Capitalist orthodoxy became the norm, the stock exchange, food exchange and profits made by the “ NEPmen. The Bukharin wing of the party saw this as a long term solution and Stalin deftly sided with them as a national policy. For the opposition it was buying time to build the international revolution. Zinoviev and Kamenev and their followers opted for Old Bolshevik loyalty realising their mistake in 1926 and allying with Trotsky’s Left Opposition.

In my view, Stalin’s solution, the so called “ Socialist Offensive” was the worst possible one only made possible by the creation of an artificial famine and slaughter on a scale the worst Tsars could not have envisaged. What did it create – national state capitalist police state that fell in 1990 without a whimper leaving Russia what it is today, an oligarchy of ex KGB gangsters who have plundered the assets of the state.