The agrarian reform enacted by the Russian soviet government in 1917 challenged the thinking of the world Marxist movement.
Previously, socialist commentary on agricultural policy had mostly been limited to describing the inevitable decline of small-holding peasantry under capitalism and the merits of large-scale cooperative production. Poor peasants’ struggle for land was often described as running counter to the movement for socialism.
Yet the Decree on Land proposed by Lenin and adopted by a November 1917 soviet congress in Russia, while nationalising the land and favouring maintenance of “high-level scientific farming” enterprises under state or local control, left the vast majority of rural land to be distributed “on an equality basis” by the peasants themselves through their local soviets.
The decree, which Lenin noted had been “copied word for word” from ordinances compiled by peasant soviets, launched a transformation of rural social relations in Russia. Large-scale private land ownership disappeared and economic differentiation among peasants was reduced.
This land reform sealed an alliance between workers and peasants (smychka) that endured through all the strains of civil war, enabling soviet power to survive.
Of course, socialists worldwide could not simply copy the Russian land reform. Agrarian conditions varied enormously around the world. Farmers made up almost the entire working population in some countries and only a small minority in others.
When the Communist International was formed in 1919, many of its member parties remained hostile to poor peasants’ struggle for land. During the months of soviet power in Hungary that year, communists in that country applied a land policy that they considered superior to that of the Bolsheviks – expropriated estates were operated without change.
Lenin commented that Hungarian “day labourers saw no changes and the small peasants got nothing” and thus had no reason to defend the revolutionary government.
Similar policies produced equally bad results during struggles for power in Finland, Poland, Italy, and other countries.
Lenin’s draft theses on the peasant question at the International’s 1920 congress were criticised by some delegates for “left opportunism” and “concessions to the agricultural petty bourgeoisie”. The theses, adopted only after much debate, stressed that industrial workers cannot defeat capitalism “if they confine themselves to… their narrow, trade union interests”. Victory depends on “carrying the class struggle into the countryside” and “rallying the rural toiling masses”.
In the countryside, “the poor working peasants and the small tenants are the natural fighting allies of the agricultural and industrial proletariat”, a 1922 Comintern resolution stated.
The Comintern focused its attention not on the long-term merits of cooperative production but on the immediate task of forming alliances with the peasantry. Its starting point was that rural producers are divided by class. Its 1920 theses identified six layers, of which two – rural wage workers who are landless and those who own tiny plots – will gain “significant and immediately effective” benefits from soviet power.
A third layer, the poor or “small” peasants, who own or rent lands barely sufficient to cover their families’ needs, will be freed by a working class victory from many forms of capitalist exploitation, such as paying rent or sharecropping or mortgages on their land, the theses stated. In addition, the workers’ state will provide them with material assistance (such as equipment or seeds) and “a portion of the lands of large capitalist enterprises”.
Even though small peasants have been “corrupted by speculation and the habits of proprietorship” they will be drawn to the side of the working class by the revolution’s “decisive settling of accounts” with large landowners, the theses stated.
At the other end of the scale, the theses viewed large estate owners and peasants relying on hired labour as enemies of the working class, although they argued that such rich peasants should be left in possession of the lands they work, at least initially.
In advanced countries, Lenin’s theses said, large agricultural enterprises should be preserved under state ownership, but even there, in many situations, “distributing the large landowners’ land will prove to be the surest method of winning the peasantry” even if it entails “a temporary decrease in production”.
Communist parties “fight against all forms of capitalist exploitation against the poor and middle peasants” and strive to lead “every struggle waged by the rural working masses against the ruling class” the Comintern’s 1922 resolution stated. Through such struggle, agricultural workers and poor peasants will learn “that a real and lasting improvement” in their position “is impossible under the capitalist system”.
In colonial and semi-colonial countries, the Comintern viewed the peasantry as “a key factor in the struggle against imperialism”. But for the peasants, this struggle embraced social goals. “Only an agrarian revolution can arouse the vast peasant masses.” It also cautioned that peasants’ liberation “will not be achieved merely by winning political independence”. They must “overthrow the rule of their landlords and bourgeoisie”.
The International applied a similar policy of alliances to middle layers in the cities – independent tradespeople, merchants and “the so-called middle class” including “technicians, white collar workers, the middle and lower-ranking civil servants and the intelligentsia”.
In conditions of capitalist crisis, these layers face “deteriorating standards of living” and “insecurity” stated the Comintern’s Theses on Tactics, adopted in 1921.
They are driven “either into the camp of open counter-revolution or into the camp of revolution”. Communists need to win such forces and “draw [them] into the proletarian front”.
The International acknowledged the economic ties linking peasants and other independent producers to capitalism. Yet as Lenin noted in 1913, “Petty production keeps going under capitalism only by squeezing out of the [independent] worker a larger amount of work than is squeezed out of the worker in large scale production.”
The peasant “must work (for capital) harder than the wage worker”. And this burden falls heaviest on the peasant woman, who “must exert herself ever so much more… to the detriment of her health and the health of her children”.
The next part of this series will take up the Comintern’s approach toward women’s emancipation.
John Riddell has edited a six volume series of documents, The Communist International in Lenin’s Time, published by Pathfinder Press. He edits the Canadian publication Socialist Voice. Quotations from Second Congress documents are from Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples,
Unite! edited by John Riddell, 1991. For subsequent congress resolutions, see Theses, Resolutions, and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International edited by Alan Adler. Both books are available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, phone 020 7637 1848 or go to » www.bookmarks.uk.com