Workers in the industrial centres and cities of Russia had an immense amount of power due to the ways in which Russian capitalism had developed. But they were in a tiny minority.
The mass of the Russian population consisted of the peasantry. For the revolution to be carried through they had to be won over.
The Tsar’s Emancipation Manifesto of 1861 formally freed serfs from being virtually the personal property of the landowners. After “emancipation”, however, they were left with next to nothing.
“Peasants remained poverty-stricken, downtrodden, ignorant, and subject to the feudal landowners,” wrote Lenin in 1911.
The “reforms” of the 1860s favoured the landowners and aristocracy even more.
But the peasants showed they could rise up against the Tsarist landowners. Rising food prices, coupled with conscription into the army, had made conditions intolerable.
In Russian Central Asia peasants rose up in 1916, attacking garrisons of troops. In Turkistan, between 8 and 13 July, they seized Fergana region. Martial law was declared throughout the whole of Turkistan.
However, as Edward Dennis Sokol argues, “The movements showed little organisation or range.” They were unsustainable when uncoupled from the workers’ movement.
The peasant experiences exploitation in a different way to the worker. Their exploiter is the landowner who the peasant sees as an individual not connected to a system.
Once this oppressor had been dispossessed or killed, as they frequently were, crowds seized parcels of land, animals or crops and returned to tending their own patch. Peasants don’t act as a lasting collective—unlike workers.
Lenin and the Bolsheviks realised that the revolution could not be successful without the support of the peasantry. The army’s mass ranks were largely drawn from this class.
The horror of the First World War provided the material basis for the peasantry to join forces with workers. Soldiers’ councils made up mainly of peasants were organised against the war. This brought them in touch with workers’ councils in the revolutionary centres of Petrograd and Moscow.
As soldiers demobilised they travelled across Russia, forming the basis of revolutionary organisation across the empire. The Socialist Revolutionary Party (SRs) focused their organising efforts on the peasantry, which they viewed as the decisive class in the revolutionary struggle.
Lenin asked in 1905, “What does the peasantry expect of the revolution? What can the revolution give the peasantry?”
By 1917 the Bolsheviks had worked out the answer. The “freedom” granted the peasants left them without the means to support themselves. The slogan “bread, peace and land” was part of the attempt to draw the interests of workers and peasants together against the Tsarist regime and its capitalist supporters.
However, the Bolshevik programme of state control of the land was amended during and after the October revolution. Peasants seized the land for themselves, creating a class of small landowners. This would create problems for the revolution down the road.
Today, the working class is growing proportionately to the peasantry on a world scale. Despite this, the question of how the revolutionary party relates to all groups in society remains relevant.
The working class must act as the beacon and spearhead for struggle by all. As Lenin put it, the fight for socialism “means struggle, not only for land and freedom, but also against all exploitation”.