Factory, Land, and Nation: Russia 1917 Part 4

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Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No 69 15 June-15 July 1987

lenin ptilov
Lenin addresses the workers at the Putilov Works

Marx and Engels expected the socialist revolution to begin in Europe, particularly in those countries with a large working class such as Britain or Germany. Yet the development of imperialism in the 20th century meant the spread of revolutionary movements outside Europe.

In pre-revolutionary Russia, 85% of the population lived in the countryside (in Britain at the same date, 20%) and only 5% of the labour force was employed in industry (for Britain 60%). Although the working class was small (in 1914 only 3m out of a total population of 150m) it was the most highly concentrated in the world.

Proportionately, there were twice as many giant enterprises employing over 1,000 workers, as in Germany or the USA. During the war the concentration increased, especially in Petrograd where the number of workers in large factories almost doubled. The average factory employed 2,850 workers, and one, the Putilov Works, employed no less than 40,000. What a gift for revolutionary organisers!

The majority of the workers toiled for a 10-hour day for a bare pittance – a 1908 survey of working class income listed as luxuries tramcar travel and postage stamps. Workers were subjected to harsh and humiliating conditions, especially in the textile industry, where they were housed in barracks, and searched when leaving the barracks or the factory. The foremen frequently used violence without restraint; and in some places mounted guards with whips rode around inside the factory.

During the war, conditions worsened considerably. Prices multiplied 6 times between 1913-1917, forcing the working class into a constant struggle even to maintain its lowly position. On average, wages fell by about 15% in real terms from their previous low level. To add insult to injury, the capitalist class made enormous profits: in the Moscow textile industry, the average profit for 1916 was 53.1%, for the first part of 1917 it was 75.2%.

Attracted by these super-profits, English and French banks invested heavily in Russian industry. Even in 1913 33% of the capital of Russian industry was foreign-owned, but the war accelerated this process tremendously, so that the Russian bourgeoisie became little more than a junior partner of imperialism. Thus the strength of the working class was not counter-balanced by a strong native bourgeoisie.

The first test of strength between the working class and the bourgeoisie took place over the 8-hour day. In the 1905 revolution the failure to win this demand had been the first major setback. But in 1917 the capitalists were forced to give way only 3 weeks after the February revolution.

The Mensheviks opposed fighting for the 8-hour day: ‘A struggle on two fronts – against the reaction and against the capitalist – is too much for the proletariat.’ However the workers could not see that ‘freedom’ was much use to them if it did not mean freedom from excessive toil for the capitalist. So in most of the big factories, the workers, led by the Bolsheviks, simply got up and left after 8-hours work – foremen who tried to prevent them from doing so were carted out of the factories in wheelbarrows.

But however well organised the working class, without powerful allies it could be isolated and eventually defeated. It found its allies in the peasantry and the subject nationalities of the Russian Empire.

The Wager on the Strong

Although feudalism in Russia was formally abolished by the 1861 Act of Emancipation, it was not destroyed outright. Although the serfs were freed they were still tied to the feudal landlords by means of the ‘labour-service’ system.

The amount of land allocated to the former serfs was actually reduced after 1861, and the doubling of the population by 1900 meant an enormous pressure on the land. By 1905 in European Russia 10m peasant households owned 79m hectares, while 28,000 landlords, members of the aristocracy or the higher bureaucracy owned 66m hectares, with the crown lands amounting to 5.4m hectares, and the church 2.7m. The communal allotments amounted to 150m hectares.

The landlord system prevailed in European Russia. In the borderlands, especially the Baltic provinces, the differentiation of the peasantry was quite advanced; and the virgin lands of the north and Siberia, untouched by feudalism, were colonised by peasant farmers.

How would the conflict between landlord and peasant be resolved? History had shown two solutions (see Lenin, CW vol 13 p 239). Either the ruling powers control developments from above (Prussian way), and the feudal landlord economy slowly evolves into bourgeois landlord economy, while at the same time there arises a small minority of large capitalist farmers. Or the land is distributed by action from below (American way). This leads to a rapid development of capitalist farming, with a differentiation of the peasantry into landless labourers and capitalist farmers.

The peasants attempted the revolutionary solution in 1905. Although they were eventually defeated, they terrified the ruling classes, which realised that they must implement the Prussian solution more vigorously. The Stolypin decree 9 November 1906 aimed to promote the development of a class of large capitalist farmers, the kulaks, by giving individual peasants permission to sell their portion of communal land - Stolypin called it the 'wager on the strong'.

For Russia, it was too little, too late. In Germany it had taken decades to create a class of capitalist farmers, a reliable support for counter-revolution; but in Russia by the end of the first decade (1916), only 12% of the communal land had been broken up.

The war intensified the agrarian crisis beyond endurance. By 1916, the planted area in European Russia declined by 8.4%; and the government carried away from the countryside about 10m workers (40% of the able-bodied male population of the villages) and about 2m horses (10%).

How did the peasantry respond in the first three months of the revolution? Some seizures of land took place, but as a whole it cautiously waited to see if, like its Tsarist predecessors, the new government had reliable punitive detachments at its disposal.

Politically the peasantry supported the SRs. At the First All-Russian Congress of Peasants Deputies (4-28 May), 537 (48%) of the 1,115 deputies were SRs, with only 14 Bolsheviks (1.4%). The elections to its Executive Committee gave the SR leader, Chernov, 810 votes, Lenin 20. The SRs opposed land seizures, and called on the peasants to wait for the Constituent Assembly to distribute the land.

But the peasants were becoming impatient. Sukhanov tells of a peasant urgently asking Kerensky for a law to reserve the land for the peasantry. Kerensky gave the ‘parliamentary’ answer: ‘The Provisional Government is already taking steps.’ As the peasants remained sceptical Kerensky ‘... began a thorough tongue-lashing, practically stamping his foot: “I said it would be done, that means it will! And – there is no need to look at me so suspiciously”!’ There was every need to regard the honoured People’s Minister with the greatest of suspicion.

Although the Bolsheviks were still a tiny minority, they were more prepared than the SRs to fight for the peasants’ interests. As the only Russian Marxist of his time to make a serious study of the agrarian problem, Lenin had equipped the Bolshevik party with a realistic programme.

Its central demand was the organised seizure of the landlords estates, as they were ‘… the material mainstay of the power of the feudalist landowners and a guarantee of the possible restoration of the monarchy.’ (CW 24 p 290).

Fearing, however, that the rich peasants might unite with the bourgeoisie to hold back the revolution, Lenin called for the setting up of Soviets of Agricultural Labourers' Deputies, relying on the landless labourers to carry the revolution through to the end. As it happened, just as in 1905, even the rich peasants made the destruction of the landlord system their central objective.


The first systematic census (1897) had shown that 60% of the inhabitants of the Russian Empire were non-Russians. From the accession of Tsar Alexander III (1881) to the 1905 Revolution the Tsars followed a systematic policy of intensified Russification and the repression of national minorities, mainly in an attempt to utilize Great Russian chauvinism as a weapon against growing social unrest. The Poles (6.1% of the population) and the Jews (4.1 %) suffered the most.

In Poland, Russian was the official language for the administration, local government and the courts. Russian Poland was ruled by governor generals, usually high-ranking army officers, who wielded absolute power. The slightest manifestation of national feeling was ruthlessly stamped out. For instance, Lenin's father-in-law, a colonel, was cashiered for having spoken Polish in public, and dancing the Polonaise.

The Jews were forbidden to move out of the Pale of Settlement, to purchase land property, or to settle outside towns. They were subject to pogroms by the Black Hundreds, fascist gangs armed and financed by the state, which were approved by the ‘crowned hooligan’, the Tsar himself. In the most notorious example, at Odessa in October 1905, 300 Jews were killed and thousands wounded or maimed.

On coming into power the Provisional Government established full equality of all citizens regardless of national origin; it restored the Finnish constitution (suspended 1897); and abolished the restrictions on Jews. However, it recognised the independence only of Poland, calling for ‘an independent Polish State’ – not a very generous concession given that the entire area of Russian Poland was then occupied by the Germans. Where it had the power to deny the right to a national minority, such as the Ukrainians (17% of the population), it attempted to do so.

The SRs and the Mensheviks responded to the demands of national minorities with their usual formula ‘Wait for the Constituent Assembly’. In fact, the Mensheviks did not recognise the right of all nations in the state to self-determination. Their enthusiasm for self-determination for Georgia was aroused only after the October revolution, when it was used as a weapon against the proletarian revolution.

Only the Bolsheviks supported the right of all the nations forming part of Russia freely to secede and form independent states (April Conference resolution). In his commentary on the resolution Lenin made it perfectly clear that the right to secede must not be confused with the advisability of secession by a given nation at a given moment, which must be decided by the proletarian party having regard to the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat for socialism.

British Labour and British Imperialism

If the Russian working class could build alliances with the oppressed in its own country, it was disappointed in its search for allies among leaders of the international working class. From the moment the Tsar was overthrown well-wishing ‘socialists’ from the Tsar’s allies came to offer . . . not their international solidarity, but their demands for a continuation of the war. None were more brazen in their support for the imperialist war than the British Labour leaders.

It is difficult to gauge the response of the working class to the February revolution, but the cautious language of the Prime Minister Lloyd George records that: ‘The shock that came from Petrograd passed through every workshop and mine, and produced a nervous disquiet which made things difficult in recruitment and munitionment.’

However, the ruling class had no need to feel ‘nervous disquiet’ when it regarded its tame socialists. Not only did they obediently fulfil their tasks, they outdid their masters in imperialist ambition. Representatives of the Moscow Soviet told the Labour delegation (19 April) that ‘The Tsar made us fight for Constantinople, which is not Russian and never was . . . ' at which one of the British delegates jovially exclaimed: ‘If you don't want Constantinople, then, damn it, we'll take it!'

Puzzled by their hosts’ lack of imperialist appetite, taxed by them about their occupation of Ireland and India, the British delegates summed up their view of Soviet Russia: ‘My Gawd, if this is democracy we don't want the bloody thing in our country!’

Waiting for the Constituent Assembly

Fearing the outcome, the supporters of the Constituent Assembly were in no hurry to convene it – the special conference on the convocation of the Assembly was first held 11 weeks after the February revolution, and its proceedings thereafter were even more leisurely.

Would the workers, peasants, and national minorities wait for the Constituent Assembly? Or would the Bolsheviks be able to develop their revolutionary initiative and seize power directly, by means of the Soviets?