Speech on the Agrarian Question May 22 (June 4), 1917
Comrades, the resolution that I am privileged to present to you in the name of the Social-Democratic group of the Peasants’ Soviet has been printed and distributed to the delegates. If any delegates have not received it we shall have more copies printed tomorrow for distribution to all who wish to have them.
In a short report I can, of course, deal only with the main, basic questions, those that are of greatest interest to the peasantry and the working class. To those interested in the question in greater detail, I can recommend the resolution of our Party, the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (Bolsheviks), published as a Supplement to Soldatskaya Pravda No. 13, and repeatedly dealt with in our newspaper Pravda. At the moment I shall have to confine myself to elucidating the more important points of my resolution and of our Party programme on the agrarian question that are most controversial or give rise to misunderstanding. One of the first of these debatable points is that touched upon yesterday or the day before in the Chief Land Committee at the session you have probably heard about or read about in the newspapers of yesterday or the day before. That session of the Chief Land Committee was attended by a representative of our Party, Comrade Smilga, a colleague of mine on the Central Committee. He proposed to the session that the Chief Land Committee should express itself in favour of the immediate organised seizure by the peasants of the landed estates, but a number of violent objections were raised to Comrade Smilga’s proposal. (Voice: “Here, too.”) I am now told that a number of comrades here will also speak against that proposal. All the more reason for my clarifying that point in our programme, because I believe that most of the objections against our programme are based on a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of our views.
What do all our Party resolutions, all the articles in our newspaper Pravda say? We say that all the land, without exception, must become the property of the whole nation. We have come to this conclusion after having studied, in particular, the peasant movement of 1905 and the statements made by peasant deputies to the First and Second Dumas, where many peasant deputies from all over Russia were able to speak with relative—relative, of course—freedom.
All the land must be the property of the whole nation. From this it follows that in advocating the immediate transfer, without payment, of the landed estates to the local peasants we do not by any means advocate the seizure of those estates as private property, we do not by any means advocate the division of those estates. We believe the land should be taken by the local peasantry for one sowing in accordance with a decision adopted by the majority of local peasant deputies. We do not by any means advocate the transfer of this land as private property to those peasants who are now taking it for one sowing. All objections of this kind to our proposal that I am constantly hearing and reading in the columns of the capitalist newspapers are based on a sheer misinterpretation of our views. Since we have said—and I repeat: we have said that in all our resolutions—that the land must be the property of the whole nation and must be taken over by it without payment—it is obvious that arrangements for the final disposal of the land, the final establishment of land regulations must be made only by a central state power, that is, by a Constituent Assembly or an All-Russia Council of Soviets, should the masses of peas ants and workers establish such state power as a Council of Soviets. On this score there are no differences of opinion.
The differences begin after this, when we are told: “If that is so, then any immediate uncompensated transfer of the landed estates to the peasantry would be an unauthorised act.” That is the view that was expressed most exactly, most authoritatively and most weightily by Minister of Agriculture Shingaryov in his well-known telegram; we consider this view to be fallacious, unfair, most prejudicial to the peasantry, prejudicial to the farmers, and the least likely to ensure the country a supply of grain. Allow me to read that telegram to show you what we mostly object to.
“An independent solution of the land question in the absence of a general state law is inadmissible. Arbitrary action will lead to a national calamity ... the lawful solution of the land question is the business of the Constituent Assembly. At the present time agricultural conciliation chambers have been set up by the tillers of the land and the landowners in each local area under the rural supply committees.”
This is the chief passage from the government’s statement on this question. If you acquaint yourselves with the resolution of the Chief Land Committee on this question adopted yesterday or the day before, and the resolution adopted, also the other day, at a private meeting of Duma deputies, you will see that the two resolutions proceed from the same viewpoint. The peasants who want land handed over immediately to the peasants without payment and distributed by local peasant committees are accused of unauthorised acts on the assumption that only a voluntary agreement between peasants and landowners, between the tillers and the owners of the land, would be in accordance with the needs and interests of the state. That is what we deny, that is what we dispute.
Let us examine the objections raised to our proposal.
The usual objections are that the land in Russia is distributed very unevenly, both between individual small units such as villages and volosts and between the bigger units such as gubernias and regions. It is said that if the local population were to take over the land by a majority decision against the will of the landowners and without payment at that, the unevenness would remain and there would even be a danger of it becoming perpetuated. We say in reply that this argument is based on a misunderstanding. The uneven distribution will remain in any case until the Constituent Assembly or some other central state power finally establishes a new system. Until such a system is established the uneven distribution will remain whether the question is settled in the peas ant’s or in the landowner’s way, whether in our way, with the immediate transfer of the land to the peasants, or in the way of the landowners, who are prepared to lease their land out at a high rent provided the tenant farmer and the landowner each retains his own rights. This objection is obviously incorrect and unjust. We say that a central state power must be established as quickly as possible, one that not only relies on the will and the decision of the peas ant majority, but also directly expresses the opinion of that majority. There are no differences on this score. When we hear objections to the Bolsheviks, attacks levelled against us in the capitalist newspapers accusing us of being anarchists, we repudiate such accusations most emphatically and regard them as an attempt to spread malicious lies and slander.
Anarchists are those who deny the need for a state power, whereas we say that a state power is absolutely necessary, not only for Russia today but for any state, even one that goes over directly to socialism. Without doubt the firmest possible authority is necessary. All we want is for that power to be wholly and exclusively in the hands of the majority of workers’, soldiers’, and peasants’ deputies. That is where we differ from other parties. By no means do we deny the need for a firm state power; we only say that all landed estates must pass into the hands of the peasants without payment, in accordance with a decision of the local peasant committee adopted by the majority, and on the condition that no damage is done to property. This is stated most explicitly in our resolution. We emphatically reject any allegation that our view implies an arbitrary act.
In our opinion, on the contrary, if the landowners keep back the land for their own use or charge money for it, that is an arbitrary act, but if the majority of peasants say that the landed estates must not remain in the hands of their owners, and that the peasantry has known nothing but oppression by those landowners for decades, for centuries, that is not arbitrary, that is the restitution of justice, and we cannot put off that restitution. If the land is transferred to the peas ants immediately the unevenness among the regions cannot be eliminated, that is indisputable; but nobody can eliminate that unevenness until the Constituent Assembly meets. If you were to ask Shingaryov today—that same Shingaryov who raises objections to us and reviles the champions of our views in official papers for “arbitrary action”—if you were to ask him what he proposes to do about that unevenness, he would be unable to answer you. He does not and cannot propose anything.
He speaks about “voluntary agreement between peasants and landowners”. What does that mean? I will cite two basic figures on landownership in European Russia. These figures show that at one end of the Russian village there are the most wealthy landowners, among them the Romanovs, the richest and the worst of landowners, and at the other end are the extremely poor peasants. I am citing two figures to show you the significance of the sermon preached by Shingaryov and all landowners and capitalists. These are the two figures: if we take the richest landowners of European Russia, we shall see that the biggest of them, numbering less than 30,000, own about 70,000,000 dessiatines of land. That works out at over 2,000 dessiatines each. If you take the upper crust of rich Russian landowners, irrespective of what social estate they belong to (most of them are nobles, but there are other landowners as well), you find that there are 30,000 of them and they own 70,000,000 dessiatines! And if you take the poor peasants according to the same 1905 Census, which is the latest available information gathered uniformly throughout Russia—information, which, like all statistics gathered in tsarist times by tsarist civil servants, is none too trustworthy, although it does give some approximation of the truth, some data can be compared—if you take the poor peasantry you get 10,000,000 households owning from 70,000,000 to 75,000,000 dessiatines of land. This means that one person has over 2,000 dessiatines and the other seven and a half dessiatines per household! And they say the peasants are guilty of arbitrary acts if they do not enter into a voluntary agreement. What is meant by “voluntary agreement”? It means that the landowners may perhaps let you have land for a good rent but will not give it up to any body without payment. Is that just? Of course it is not. Is that profitable to the peasant population? Of course it is not. The form in which landed property will ultimately be established is for the future central state authority to decide, but at the present time the landed estates must be immediately transferred to the peasantry without compensation, provided the seizure is organised. Minister Chernov, opposing my colleague Smilga in the Chief Land Committee, said that the two words “organised seizure” are a contradiction in terms; if it’s a seizure, then it is unorganised, and if it’s organised, then it is not a seizure. I do not think this criticism is correct. I think that if the peasantry make a majority decision in any village or volost, any uyezd or gubernia—in some gubernias, if not all, the peasant congresses have set up local authorities representing the interests and will of the majority, the will of the population, i.e., of the majority of the tillers of the soil—once these authorities are set up in the localities the decision they make will be the decision of authorities recognised by the peas ants. The local peasantry are certain to respect these authorities, for there is no doubt that these freely elected authorities will decide that the landed estates must immediately pass into the hands of the peasants. Let the peasant know that he is taking the estate of the landowner, and if he pays anything, let him pay it into a local peasant fund, and let him know that the money will go towards farm improvements, paving and road building, etc. Let him know that the land he is taking is not his land, nor is it the land owner’s, but the common property of the people, which the Constituent Assembly will, in the end, dispose of. For this reason the landowners must have no right to the land from the very beginning of the revolution, from the moment the first land committee was set up, and no payment should be required for it.
The basic difference between ourselves and our-opponents is in our respective understanding of what order is and what law is. Up to now law and order have been regarded as things that suited the landowners and bureaucrats, but we maintain that law and order are things that suit the majority of the peasantry. Until there is an All-Russia Council of Soviets, until there is a Constituent Assembly, local authority—uyezd and gubernia committees—constitutes the supreme law and order! We call it lawlessness when one landowner, on the basis of ancient rights, demands a “voluntary” agreement with three hundred peasant families who have an average of seven and a half dessiatines of land each! We say: “Let a decision be taken by the majority; we want the peasants to obtain the landed estates now, without losing a single month, a single week or even a single day.”
We are told: “If the peasants seize the land now, It is the richer peasants who will get it, those who have animals, implements, etc.; would this, therefore, not be dangerous from the point of view of the poor peasants?” Comrades, I must dwell on this argument, because our Party, in all our decisions, programmes and appeals to the people, declares:
“We are the party of wage-workers and poor peasants; it is their interests we are out to protect; it is through them, and through them alone, through those classes, that mankind can escape the horrors into which the capitalists’ war has plunged it.”
To objections like these, claiming that our decisions are contrary to the interests of the poor peasants, we pay careful attention and invite a most careful study of them because they touch the very heart of the matter, the very root of the problem. And the heart of the matter Is this: how can the interests of the wage-workers, both urban and rural, and the interests of the poor peasants be protected in the revolution, in the transformation of the political system, that is now taking place in Russia, how can and should their interests be protected against those of the landowners or rich peasants who are also capitalists? That, of course, is the crux of the matter, the nub of the whole problem. But we are told that if we advise the peasants to seize the land immediately, it is those who have implements and animals who will mostly do the seizing and the poor will be left out of the picture. And now I ask you—will a voluntary agreement with the landowners help?
You know very well that the landowners are not anxious to rent out land to those peasants who have not got a kopek in their pockets, but, on the contrary, resort to “voluntary” agreements where they are promised substantial payment.
Up to now the landowners do not seem to have been giving their land away for nothing—at least nobody in Russia ever noticed it.
To speak of voluntary agreements with the landowners means greatly increasing and consolidating the privileged, preferential position and the advantages enjoyed by the rich peasant, because the rich peasant can certainly pay the land owner and every landowner regards him as a person who is good for his money. The landowner knows that the rich peasant can pay and that he can be sued for the money, so that the rich peasant has more to gain by such “voluntary” deals with the landowners than the poor peasant. If there is any possibility of helping the poor peasant straight away, it is by a measure such as I propose—the land must go to the peasants immediately and without payment.
Landed estates always have been and will be a flagrant injustice. The free tenure of that land by the peasants, if the tenure is in accordance with the will of the majority, ’will not be an arbitrary act but a restitution of justice. That is our point of view, and that is why we consider the argument that the poor peasantry would lose by it to be a great injustice. The agreement is called “voluntary”—only Shingaryov could call it that—when one landowner has 2,000 dessiatines and 300 peasants have an average of seven and a half per family. To call such an agreement voluntary is sheer mockery of the peasants. For the peasant it is not a voluntary agreement, but a compulsory one, and will be such until every volost, gubernia or uyezd peasant Soviet or the All-Russia Council of Soviets declares that the landed estates are a gross injustice and that they must be abolished without losing a single hour, a single minute.
The land must be the property of the entire people, and must be declared such by a central state power. Until that power is established, the local authorities, I again repeat, should take over the landed estates and should do so In an organised manner according to the will of the majority. It. Is not true, as the newspapers assert, that disorder reigns in Russia! It isn’t true—there is greater order in the country side than ever before, because majority decisions are being made; there have been scarcely any acts of violence against tile landowners; unfair treatment of the landowners has occurred only in isolated cases; they are insignificant and in Russia as a whole are not more in number than those which formerly occurred.
Now I want to mention another argument that I have heard and had occasion to deal with in our newspaper Pravda in connection with the immediate transfer of the land to the peasantry.
The argument is this: It we advise the peasants to take over the landed estates immediately and without payment, this will cause discontent, annoyance and anxiety and perhaps even indignation among the soldiers at the front who may say, “If the peasants take the land now and we have to stay at the front, we shall be left without land.” Perhaps the soldiers would all leave the front and chaos and anarchy would result. But in answer to this we say that this objection has nothing to do with the real issue; whether the land is taken for payment, by agreement with the landowners, or by a decision of the majority of the peasantry, in either case the soldiers will remain at the front and will certainly remain there as long as the war lasts and will not be able to return to their villages. Why should the soldiers at the front not be anxious about the landowners imposing unfavourable terms in the form of a voluntary agreement, why should they be anxious about the peasants making a majority decision against the landowners? Why should the soldier at the front place his trust in the landowner, in a “voluntary” agreement with the landowner? I can understand the political parties of the landowners and capitalists talking like this, but I do not believe that the Russian soldier at the front sees it that way. If there is a “voluntary” agreement with the landowner, tile soldier will not call it good order, will not place his trust in it, or is more likely to see in it a continuation of the old disorder that existed under the landowners.
If the soldier is told that the land is being taken over by the people, that the local peasants are renting land and paying rent, not to the landowner but to their own committee for the common good, for those very soldiers at the front, and not for the landowner, he is more likely to have faith in this. If this is a majority decision, the soldier at the front will know that there cannot be any “voluntary” agreements with landowners, that the landowners are also citizens with equal rights whom nobody wishes to wrong; the land belongs to the entire nation, consequently it belongs also to the landowner, not as a privilege of the nobility, but in the same way as it belongs to any other citizen. From the day the power of the tsar was overthrown—a tsar who was the biggest landowner and oppressor of the masses—there must be no privileges for the landowners. With the establishment of liberty, the power of the landowners must be considered overthrown once and for all. The soldier at the front does not stand to lose anything from this point of view; on the contrary, he will have much greater faith in the state authorities, he will not worry about his household or about his family being treated unjustly or being neglected.
There remains one other objection that has been raised to our proposal. This argument is that if the peasants were to seize the landed estates immediately, such immediate, poorly prepared seizure might lead to a deterioration in the tilling and sowing of the land. I must say that a government of the majority, a central state power, has not yet been established, the peasants have not yet acquired sufficient confidence in themselves and have not lost their trust in the landowners and capitalists; I believe that we are drawing closer to this day by day, that the peasantry are day by day losing their confidence in the old state power and realising that only the peasants’, soldiers’, workers’ and other elected deputies and nobody else can constitute the government in Russia; I believe that every passing day brings us closer to this, not because any political party has advised it—millions of people will never listen to the advice of parties if that advice does not fall in with their own experience. We are rapidly approaching the time when there will be no other state power in Russia except the power of the representatives of the peasants and workers. When I am told that the immediate seizure of the land is likely to lead to its being poorly cultivated, that the sowing will be poor, I must say that our peasants cultivate the land very poorly because of their downtrodden condition, because of centuries of oppression by the landowners. There is, of course, a fearful crisis in Russia, a crisis that has hit her as it has other belligerent countries, and Russia can only weather it by better cultivation of the land and the greatest economy of manpower. But today, at the time of the first sowing of crops, can anything be changed by “voluntary” agreements with the landowners? Are we to understand that the land owners will better look after the cultivation of the soil, that the peasants will sow worse if they know they are sowing land which is the property of the whole people and not of the landowner? If they pay rent into their own peasant funds and not to the landowner? This is such nonsense that I am astonished to hear such arguments; it is absolutely unbelievable and is nothing but a ruse on the part of the landowners.
The landowners realise that they can no longer rule by means of the big stick; they realise that very well, and are adopting a form of rule that is new to Russia but which has existed for a long time in Western Europe, in the West-European countries. Two revolutions in Russia have shown that the rule of the stick is no longer possible, and in the West-European countries dozens of revolutions have demonstrated it. Those revolutions have taught the landowners and capitalists a lesson; they have taught them that they have to rule the people by deception, by flattery; that they have to adapt themselves, wear a red badge on their jackets, and, sharks though they are, declare: “We are revolutionary democrats, please wait a bit and we’ll do everything for you.” The argument that the peasants will make a worse job of the sowing now if they sow land which no longer belongs to the landowners but is national property, is simply making fun of the peasants, it is an attempt to maintain rule over them by means of deception.
I repeat—there must be no landed proprietorship at all; tenure is not proprietorship, tenure is a temporary measure and it changes from year to year. The peasant who rents a plot of land does not dare regard the land as his own. The land is not his nor the landowner’s, it belongs to the people.
--> I repeat that this cannot make the sowing of crops this year, this spring, any worse. That assumption is so monstrous and improbable that there is only one thing for me to say—beware of the landowners, do not trust them, do not be taken in by fair words and promises. It must be remembered that a decision made by a majority of peasants, who are careful enough in making decisions, is a lawful decision of state significance. In this respect the peasants are to be relied upon. I have, for example, a decision passed by Penza peasants which is worded throughout with extraordinary caution; the peasants are not planning any immediate changes for the whole of Russia, but they do not want to place them selves in intolerable bondage, and in this they are right. The greatest bondage was that of the peasant to the landowner, and such it remains, bondage to the landowners and oppressors. The abolition of that bondage, therefore, must not be put off for a single week, even a single hour; but every seizure must be an organised seizure, not to make property of the seized land, not to divide it up, but to use it in common, as the property of the ’whole people.
I could finish with this question of the seizure of land by answering that the objections against our proposal are based on deception when they come from the landowners and capitalists, and on misunderstanding, on a too credulous belief in what the landowners and capitalists say untruthfully against us when they come from those who are neither land owners nor capitalists but people who have the interests of the working people at heart. If you examine our arguments you will see that the just demand that the landed estates be abolished immediately and similarly that property in land belong to the people cannot be put into effect until a central government is established, but what we do advise, and urge most insistently, is that the peasants themselves, right on the spots in the localities, take over the land so as to avoid any breach of good order. We offer this advice in our resolutions, but perhaps it is superfluous, since the peasants are doing this without our advice.
I shall pass to the second question, the one to which the greatest attention should be drawn, the question of what we think should be done with the land in the best interests of the masses when it becomes the property of the whole people, when private property is abolished. That time is close at hand in Russia. In fact, the landowners’ power, if not destroyed, has been undermined. When all the peasants are in possession of the land, when there are no landowners, how are we to distribute the land? It seems to me that we must have some sort of common, basic view on this question, be cause, obviously, local arrangements will always be made by the peasantry. It cannot be otherwise in a democratic state; this is so obvious that there is no need even to talk about it. But in answer to the question of what must be done to secure the land for the working people, we say: “We want to protect the interests of the wage-workers and poor peasants.” Our Russian Social-Democratic Party of Bolsheviks regards this as its duty. We ask ourselves: If we say that the land will belong to the nation is that the same as saying the land will belong to the working people? Our answer is: No, it is not the same thing! By saying that the land will belong to the nation, we mean that landed property will be abolished; we mean that all the land will belong to the whole people; we mean that anyone who uses land will rent it from the nation. If such an arrangement is made no differences in land tenure will remain, all the land will be alike, and, as the peasants often say, “All the old bounds and barriers will fall away, the land will be unfenced—there will be free soil, and free labour.”
Does that mean that the land will be handed over to all working people? No, it does not. Free labour on free soil means that all the old forms of land tenure will be abolished and there will be no other form of ownership than national ownership; everyone rents land from the state; there is a single state authority, that of all the workers and peasants; a peas ant can rent land from it as a leaseholder; between the peasant and the state there are no middlemen; the terms on which land is rented are equal for all; that is free labour on free soil.
Does that mean that the land will be handed over to all the working people? No, it does not. You cannot eat land, and to farm it you need implements, animals, equipment, and money; without money, without implements, you cannot farm. And so, when you set up a system of free labour on free soil, there will be no landed estates, no categories on the land. There will be only land which is national property and free tenants renting land from the state. When you set up this system it will not mean the transfer of the land to all the working people, it will merely mean that every farmer will freely dispose of his land; anybody who wants land will be free to rent it from the state. That will be a big step forward compared with the Russia of the tsars and landowners, It will be a big step forward because Russia of the tsars and landowners was a country in which 70,000,000 dessiatines were given over to 30,000 Markovs, Romanovs and other such landowners; it will be a Russia in which there will be free labour on free soil. This has already been done in many places. Already now Russia is ahead of the Russia of the tsars and landowners, but this is not a transfer of land to the working people, it is the transfer of land to the farmer, because if the land belongs to the state, and those people take it who want to farm it, that is not enough; it is not enough to want to farm, the ability to farm is also needed, and even ability is not enough. Any farm labourer or day-labourer has that ability, but he does not have sufficient animals, implements, and capital, so that no matter how many decisions are taken, no matter how much we talk about it, we shall not establish free labour on free soil in that way. Even if we were to hang up notices about free soil in every volost administration, it would not improve matters as far as the working people are concerned, any more than the prisons in West-European republics would cease to be prisons because they had the words “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” inscribed on them. If the words “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” are written on a factory, as in America, the factory does not thereby cease to be a hell for the workers and a paradise for the capitalists.
And so we have to think of what to do further, how to ensure that there should not be merely free labour—that is a step forward, but it is still not a step towards protecting the interests of the working people; it is a step towards liberation from the landowner sharks, from exploitation by the landowners, liberation from the Markovs, from the police, etc., but it is not a step towards protecting the interests of the working people, because the poor, propertyless peasant cannot do anything with the land without animals, implements, and capital. That is why I am very sceptical about the two so-called norms or standards of land tenure, the labour standard and the subsistence standard. I know that arguments about these two norms and explanations of them are always to be met with in the Narodnik parties. I know that those parties hold the view that these two norms, these two standards, must be established—the labour standard is the largest amount of land a family can till; the subsistence standard is one just sufficient to feed the family, less would mean hunger. I have said that I am very sceptical about this question of standards or norms and I believe it is a bureaucrat’s plan that will not do any good; it can’t be put into practice even if it were decided upon here. That is the crux of the whole matter! That plan cannot relieve the position of the hired labourers and poor peasants to any appreciable extent, and even if you accept it, it will remain on paper so long as capitalism dominates. That plan does not help us find the true road for the transition from capitalism to socialism.
When people speak of these two norms, these two standards, they imagine that only two things exist—the land and the citizen, as if there had never been anything else in the world. If that were so, the plan would be a good one. But that is not so—there exists the power of capital, the power of money; without money there cannot be any farming on the freest land, no matter what “standards” of it you have, because as long as money remains wage-labour ’will remain. And this means that the rich peasants—and there are no less than a million families of them in Russia—are oppressing and exploiting hired labourers, and will continue to oppress them on the “free” soil. Those rich peasants constantly, not by way of exception but as a general rule, resort to the hiring of workers by the year, by the season and by the day, that is, they resort to the exploitation of the poor peasants, the proletarians. Alongside this you have millions and millions of peasants who have no horses and cannot exist without selling their labour-power, without doing seasonal work for somebody else, etc. As long as the power of money, the power of capital, remains, no matter what “standards” of land tenure you establish they will at best be useless in practice because they do not take into consideration the chief factor—that property in Implements, animals, and money is distributed unevenly; they do not take into consideration the existence of the hired labour that is exploited. That is a basic fact in the present-day life of Russia, and there is no getting away from it; but if we establish any kind of “standards”, life will bypass them and they will remain on paper. To protect the interests of the propertyless, poor peasants in this great transformation of Russia in which you are now engaged and which you will undoubtedly carry through, when private property in land will be abolished and a step forward will have been made towards the better, socialist future; to protect the interests of the workers and poor peasants in this great work of transformation that you are only just beginning, which will go a long way forward and which, it may be said without exaggeration, will undoubtedly be brought to completion in Russia because there is no power that can stop it, we must not take the road of establishing norms or standards, but must find some other way.
I and my Party comrades, in whose name I have the honour to speak, know of only two ways of protecting the interests of agricultural labourers and poor peasants, and we recommend these two ways to the Peasants’ Soviet for its attention.
The first way is to organise the agricultural labourers and poor peasants. We should like, and we advise it, to have in each peasant committee, in each volost, uyezd and gubernia, a separate group of agricultural labourers and poor peasants who will have to ask themselves: “If the land becomes the property of the whole people tomorrow—and it certainly will, because the people want it to—then where do we come in? Where shall we, who have no animals or implements, got them from? How are we to farm the land? How must we protect our interests? How are we to make sure that the land, which will belong to the whole people, which will really be the property of the nation, should not fall only into the hands of proprietors? If it falls into the hands of those who own enough animals and implements, shall we gain anything by it? Is that what we made this great revolution for? Is that what we wanted?”
The “people” will have the land, but that is not enough to protect the interests of agricultural labourers. It is not a matter of us here, from above, or the peasant committee, establishing a “standard” of land to be held by individuals. Such measures will not help as long as capital is dominant, and they will not offer deliverance from the domination of capitalism. There is only one way to escape the yoke of capitalism and ensure that the people’s land goes to the working people, and that is by organising the agricultural labourers, who will be guided by their experience, their observations and their distrust of what the village sharks tell them, even though these sharks wear red rosettes in their buttonholes and call themselves “revolutionary democrats”.
The poor peasants can only be taught by independent organisation in the localities, they can only learn from their own experience. That experience will not be easy, we cannot and do not promise them a land flowing with milk and honey. The landowners will be thrown out because the people wish it, but capitalism will remain. It is much more difficult to do away with capitalism, and the road to its overthrow is a different one. It is the road of independent, separate organisation of the agricultural labourers and the poor peasants. And that is what our Party proposes in the first instance.
Only this road promises a gradual, difficult, but real and certain transfer of the land to the working people.
The second stop which our Party recommends is that every big economy, for example, every big landed estate, of which there are 30,000 in Russia, should be organised as soon as possible into a model farm for the common cultivation of the land jointly by agricultural labourers and scientifically trained agronomists, using the animals, implements, etc., of the landowner for that purpose. ’Without this common cultivation under the direction of the Soviets of Agricultural Labourers the land will not go entirely to the working people. To be sure, joint cultivation is a difficult business and it would be madness of course for anybody to imagine that joint cultivation of the land can be decreed from above and imposed on people, because the centuries-old habit of farming on one s own cannot suddenly disappear, and because money will be needed for it and adaptation to the new mode of life. If this advice, this view, on the common cultivation of the land with commonly owned animals and implements to be used to the best purpose jointly with agronomists—if this advice were the invention of individual political parties, the case would be a bad one, because changes are not made in the life of a people on the advice of a party, because tens of millions of people do not make a revolution on the advice of a party, and such a change would be much more of a revolution than the overthrow of the weak-minded Nicholas Romanov. I repeat, tens of millions of people will not make a revolution to order, but will do so when driven to it by dire need, when their position is an impossible one, when the joint pressure and determination of tens of millions of people break down the old barriers and are actually capable of creating a new way of life. When we advise such a measure, and advise caution in the handling of it, saying that it is becoming necessary, we are not drawing that conclusion from our programme, from our socialist doctrine alone, but because we, as socialists, have come to this conclusion by studying the life of the West-European nations. We know that there have been many revolutions over there and that they have established democratic republics; we know that in America in 1865 the slave-owners were defeated and hundreds of millions of dessiatines of land were distributed among the peasantry for nothing or next to nothing, and nevertheless capitalism dominates there more than anywhere else and oppresses the mass of the working people as badly as, if not worse than, in other countries. This is the socialist teaching, this is our study of other nations that firmly convinces us that without the common cultivation of the land by agricultural labourers using the best machinery and guided by scientifically trained agronomists there is no escape from the yoke of capitalism. But if we were to be guided only by the experience of the West-European countries it would be very bad for Russia, because the Russian people in the mass are only capable of taking a serious step along that new path when the direst need arises. And we say to you: the time has now come when that dire need for the entire Russian people is knocking at the door. The dire need I speak of is precisely this—we cannot continue farming in the old way. If we continue as before on our small isolated farms, albeit as free citizens on free soil, we are still faced with imminent ruin, for the debacle is drawing nearer day by day, hour by hour. Everyone is talking about it; it is a grim fact, due not to the malice of individuals but to the world war of conquest, to capitalism.
The war has exterminated millions of people, has drenched the world in blood, brought it to the brink of disaster. This is no exaggeration, nobody can vouch for what will happen tomorrow; everyone is talking about it. Take the newspaper Izvestia of the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies—everybody there is saying that the capitalists are resorting to slow-down tactics and lockouts. That means there is no work and the capitalists are laying off large numbers of workers. That is what this criminal war has brought all countries to, and not Russia alone.
That is why we say that farming on individual plots, even if it is “free labour on free soil”, is no way out of the dreadful crisis, it offers no deliverance from the general ruin. A universal labour service is necessary, the greatest economy of manpower is necessary, an exceptionally strong and firm authority is necessary, an authority capable of effecting that universal labour service; it cannot be done by officials, it can be done only by the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Deputies, because they are the people, they are the masses, because they are not a government of officials, because they, knowing the life of the peasant from top to bottom, can organise labour conscription, can organise that protection of human labour that would not permit the squandering of the peasant’s labour, and the transition to common cultivation would, under these circumstances, be carried out gradually and with circumspection. It is a difficult business, but ii; is necessary to go over to common cultivation on big model farms; if that is not done it will be impossible for Russia to find a way out of the debacle, out of the truly desperate situation in which she finds herself, and it would be the greatest mistake to think that such a gigantic transformation in the life of the people can be made at a single stroke. That cannot be done, it requires the greatest labour effort, it requires concentration, determination and energy on the part of each peasant and worker at his own place, at his own particular job, which he knows and has been working at for years. It is not a thing that can be done by any sort of decree, but it is a thing that must be done, because this war of conquest has brought all mankind to the brink of destruction; tens of millions of lives have been lost, and still more will be lost in this terrible war unless we strain our efforts, unless all organisations of the Soviets of Workers’ and Peasants’ Deputies take joint and determined action towards the common cultivation of the soil without the capitalists and without the landowners. That path is the only one that will lead to the real transfer of the land to the working people.
Published May 25, 1917 in Izvestia of the All-Russia Soviet of Peasants Deputies No. 14; and in the December 1917 in the pamphlet Material on the Agrarian Question, Priboi Publishers
Published according to the text of the pamphlet verified with the newspaper text
Source: Marxist Internet Archive