The New Course

6. The “Underestimation” of the Peasantry

Certain comrades have adopted very singular methods of political criticism: they assert that I am mistaken today in this or that question because I was wrong in this or that question a dozen years ago. This method considerably simplifies the task.

The question of today in itself needs to be studied in its full contents. But a question raised several years ago has long since been exhausted, judged by history and, to refer to it again does not require great intellectual effort; all that is needed is memory and good faith.

But I cannot say that in this last respect all goes well with my critics. And I am going to prove it by an example from one of the most important questions.

One of the favourite arguments of certain circles during recent times consists of pointing out mainly by indirection that I “underestimate” the role of the peasantry. But one would seek in vain among my adversaries for an analysis of this question, for facts, quotations, in a word, for any proof.

Ordinarily, their argumentation boils down to allusions to the theory of the “permanent revolution,” and to two or three bits of corridor gossip. And between the theory of the “permanent revolution” and the corridor gossip there is nothing, a void.

As to the theory of the “permanent revolution,” I see no reason to renounce what I wrote on this subject in 1904, 1905, 1906, and later. To this day, I persist in considering that the thoughts I developed at that time are much closer, taken as a whole, to the genuine essence of Leninism than much of what a number of Bolsheviks wrote in those days.

The expression “permanent revolution” is an expression of Marx which he applied to the revolution of 1848. In Marxian, naturally not in revisionist but in revolutionary Marxian literature, this term has always had citizenship rights. Franz Mehring employed it for the revolution of 1905-1907. The permanent revolution, in an exact translation, is the continuous revolution, the uninterrupted revolution. What is the political idea embraced in this expression?

It is, for us communists, that the revolution does not come to an end after this or that political conquest, after obtaining this or that social reform, but that it continues to develop further and its only boundary is the socialist society. Thus, once begun, the revolution (insofar as we participate in it and particularly when we lead it) is in no case interrupted by us at any formal stage whatever. On the contrary, we continually and constantly advance it in conformity, of course, with the situation, so long as the revolution has not exhausted all the possibilities and all the resources of the movement. This applies to the conquests of the revolution inside of a country as well as to its extension over the international arena.

For Russia, this theory signified: what we need is not the bourgeois republic as a political crowning, nor even the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, but a workers’ government supporting itself upon the peasantry and opening up the era of the international socialist revolution.

Thus, the idea of the permanent revolution coincides entirely with the fundamental strategical line of Bolshevism. It is understandable if this was not seen eighteen or fifteen years ago. But it is impossible not to understand and to recognise it now that the general formula have been verified by full blooded historical context.

One cannot discover in my writings of that time the slightest attempt to leap over the peasantry. The theory of the permanent revolution led directly to Leninism and in particular to the April, 1917, Theses.

These theses, however, predetermining the policy of our party in and throughout October, provoked panic, as is known, among a very large part of those who now speak only in holy horror of the theory of the “permanent revolution.”

However, to enter into a discussion on all these questions with comrades who have long ago ceased to read and who live exclusively on the muddled recollections of their youth, is not a very easy thing to do; besides, it is useless. But comrades, and young communists in the first place, who do not weary of studying and who, in any case, do not let themselves be frightened either by cabalistic words or by the word “permanent,” will do well to read for themselves, pencil in hand, the works of those days, for and against “the permanent revolution,” and to try to get from these works the threads that link them with the October Revolution, which is not so difficult.

But what is much more important is the practice pursued during and after October. There it is possible to check up every detail. Needless to say, on the question of the political adoption by our party of the “Social Revolutionary” agrarian program, there was not a shadow of disagreement between Lenin and me. The same goes for the decree on land.

Regardless of whether our peasant policy has been right or wrong on some specific point, it never provoked any differences of opinion among us. It is with my active participation that our policy was oriented toward the middle peasant. The experience and conclusions of the military work contributed to no small degree to the realisation of this policy.

Besides, how was it possible to underestimate the role and the importance of the peasantry in the formation of a revolutionary army recruited from among the peasants and organised with the aid of the advanced workers?

It suffices to examine our military political literature to see how permeated it was with the thought that the civil war is politically the struggle of the proletariat with the counterrevolution for influence over the peasantry and that the victory cannot be assured save by the establishment of rational relationships between the workers and the peasants, in an individual regiment, in the district of military operations, and in the state as a whole.

In March, 1919, in a report sent to the Central Committee from the Volga region, I supported the necessity of a more effective application of our policy oriented on the middle peasant, and against the inattentive and superficial attitude that was still current in the party in this question.

In a report prompted by a discussion in the Sengheleyev organisation, I wrote: “The temporary political situation which may even last a long time is nevertheless a much more profound social economic reality, for even if the proletarian revolution triumphs in the West, we shall have to base ourselves in large measure, in the construction of socialism, upon the middle peasant and to draw him into the socialist economy.

Nevertheless, the orientation upon the middle peasant in its first form (“show solicitude toward the peasants,” “do not give them orders,” etc.), proved inadequate.

There was a growing feeling of the necessity of changing the economic policy. Under the influence of my observations on the state of mind of the army and of my declarations during my economic inspection trip in the Urals, I wrote to the Central Committee in February, 1920:

“The present policy of the requisition of food products according to the norms of consumption, of joint responsibility for the delivery of these products and of the equal distribution of industrial products, is lowering agricultural production, bringing about the atomisation of the industrial proletariat and threatens to disorganise completely the economic life of the country.”

As a fundamental practical measure, I proposed:

“To replace the requisitioning of the surpluses by a levy proportionate to the quantity of production (a sort of progressive income tax) and set up in such a manner that it is nevertheless more profitable to increase the acreage sown or to cultivate it better.”

My text as a whole represented a fairly complete proposal to go over to the New Economic Policy in the country. To this proposal was linked another dealing with the new organisation of industry, a less definitive and much more circumspect proposal, but directed on the whole against the régime of the “Centers” which was destroying all contact between industry and agriculture.

These proposals were at that time rejected by the Central Committee; this, if you please, was the only difference of opinion on the peasant question. It is now possible to estimate variously the extent to which the adoption of the New Economic Policy was expedient in February 1920. Opinion may be divided on this matter. Personally, I do not doubt that we would have gained from it. At any rate, it is impossible to conclude from the documents I have just reported that I systematically ignored the peasantry or that I did not sufficiently appreciate its role.

The discussion on the trade unions grew out of the economic blind alley we had gotten into, thanks to the requisitioning of food products and to the régime of omnipotent “Centrals.” Could the “merging” of the trade unions into the economic organs have remedied the situation? Obviously not. But neither could any other measure remedy the situation so long as the economic régime of “war communism” continued to exist.

These episodic discussions were wiped out before the decision to resort to the market, a decision of capital importance which did not engender any difference of opinion. The new resolution devoted to the tasks of the trade unions on the basis of the NEP were worked out by Lenin between the Tenth and Eleventh Congresses and were, again, adopted unanimously.

I could adduce a good dozen other facts, politically less important, but all of which would refute just as flatly the fable of my so called “underestimation” of the role of the peasantry. But is it after all really necessary and possible to refute an assertion so completely undemonstrable and based so exclusively upon bad faith, or in the best case, upon a defective memory?

* * *

Is it true that the fundamental characteristic of international opportunism is the “underestimation” of the role of the peasantry? No, it is not. The essential characteristic of opportunism, including our Russian Menshevism, is the underestimation of the role of the proletariat, or, more exactly, the lack of confidence in its revolutionary strength.

The Mensheviks founded their whole argument against the seizure of power by the proletariat on the enormous number of peasants and their immense social role in Russia. The Social Revolutionists considered that the peasantry was created for the purpose of being under their leadership and, through their intermediary, to rule the country.

The Mensheviks, who, at the most critical moments of the revolution, made common cause with the Social Revolutionists, judged that by its very nature the peasantry was destined to be the principal prop of bourgeois democracy, to whose aid they came on every occasion, either by supporting the Social Revolutionists or the Kadets. Moreover, in these combinations the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionists delivered the peasantry bound hand and foot to the bourgeoisie.

It may be said, to be sure, and it would be entirely valid, that the Mensheviks underestimated the possible role of the peasantry in comparison with the role of the bourgeoisie; but still more did they underestimate the role of the proletariat in comparison with that of the peasantry. And it is from the latter underestimation that the former, which was derivative, flowed.

The Mensheviks categorically rejected as a utopia, as a fantasy, as nonsense, the leading role of the proletariat with relation to the peasantry, with all the consequences flowing therefrom, that is, the conquest of power by the proletariat supporting itself upon the peasantry. That is the Achilles heel of Menshevism which, by the way, resembles Achilles only in its heel.

Finally, what were the principal arguments in our own party against the seizure of power before October? Did they really consist in the underestimation of the role of the peasantry? On the contrary, in an overestimation of its role in relationship to that of the proletariat. The comrades who opposed the taking of power alleged mainly that the proletariat would be submerged by the petty bourgeois element, whose base was the many millioned peasantry.

The term “underestimation” in itself expresses nothing, either theoretically or politically, for it is not a question of the absolute weight of the peasantry in history but of its role and of its importance with reference to other classes: on the one side, the bourgeoisie; on the other, the proletariat.

The question can and should be posed concretely, that is, from the standpoint of the dynamic relationship of forces of the different classes. The question that has considerable political importance for the revolution (decisive in certain cases, but far from being everywhere identical), is that of knowing if, in the revolutionary period, the proletariat will draw to its side the peasantry and in what proportion.

Economically, the question that has an immense importance (decisive in some countries like our own, but certainly not everywhere identical), is that of knowing in what measure the proletariat in power will succeed in harmonising the construction of socialism with the peasant economy. But in all countries and under all conditions, the essential characteristic of opportunism resides in the overestimation of the strength of the bourgeois class and of the intermediate classes and in the underestimation of the strength of the proletariat.

Ridiculous, not to say absurd, is the pretension to establish some kind of universal Bolshevist formula out of the peasant question, valid for the Russia of 1917 as well as of 1923, for America with its farmers as well as for Poland with its big landed property.

Bolshevism began with the program of the restitution of the bits of land to the peasants, replaced this program with that of nationalisation, made the agrarian program of the Social Revolutionists its own in 1917, established the system of the requisition of food products, then replaced it with the food tax ... And we are nevertheless still very far from the solution of the peasant question, and we still have many changes and turns to make.

Isn’t it clear that the practical tasks of today cannot be dissolved in the general formula created by the experiences of yesterday? That the solution of the problems of economic organisation cannot be replaced by a bald appeal to tradition? That it is not possible to determine the historic path by standing solely upon memories of the past and analogies?

The capital economic task of the day consists in establishing between industry and agriculture and, consequently, in industry, a correlation that would permit industry to develop with a minimum of crises, collisions and upheavals, and in assuring industry and state commerce a growing preponderance over private capital.

That is the general problem. It is divided into a series of partial problems: what methods should be followed in the establishment of a rational correlation between town and country, between transportation, finance and industry, between industry and commerce? Which institutions are indicated to apply these methods? What, finally, are the concrete statistical data that make it possible at any given moment to establish the plans and the economic calculations best suited to the situation? Every one, obviously, a question whose solution cannot be predetermined by any general political formula whatever. It is necessary to build the concrete reply in the process of construction.

What the peasant asks of us is not to repeat a correct historical formula of class relationships (smytchka, etc.) but that we supply him with cheaper nails, cloth and matches.

We will succeed in satisfying these demands only by an increasingly exact application of the methods of registration, of organisation, of production, of sale, of check ing on work done, of amendment and of radical changes.

Do these questions bear a principled or programmatic character? No, for neither the program nor the theoretical traditions of the party have bound us, nor could they bind us, on this point, due to the lack of necessary experience and its generalisation.

Is the practical importance of these questions great? Immeasurably. Upon their solution depends the fate of the revolution. In these circumstances, to dissolve every practical question and the differences of opinion flowing from it in the “tradition” of the party, transformed into an abstraction, means in most cases to renounce what is most important in this tradition itself: the posing and solving of every problem in its integral reality.

There ought to be an end to the jabbering about underestimating the role of the peasantry. What is really needed is to lower the price of the merchandise for the peasants.

Appendix [for Chapter 6]
The Fundamental Questions of the Food and Agrarian Policy

(A Proposal Made to the Central Committee of the Party in February, 1920)

The seignioral and crown lands have been turned over to the peasantry. Our whole policy is directed against the peasants possessing a large area of land and a large number of horses (kulaks). On the other hand, our food policy is based upon the requisitioning of the surpluses of agricultural production (above consumer norms). This prompts the peasant not to cultivate his land except for his family needs. In particular, the decree on the requisitioning of every third cow (regarded as superfluous) leads in reality to the clandestine slaughter of cows, the secret sale of the meat at high prices and the disorganisation of the dairy-products industry. At the same time, the semi-proletarian and even proletarian elements of the towns are settling in the villages, where they are starting their own farms. Industry is losing its hands, and in agriculture the number of self-sufficient farms tends to increase constantly. By that very fact, the basis of our food policy, established on the requisitioning of surpluses, is undermined. If in the current year the requisitioning yields a greater quantity of products, it must be attributed to the extension of Soviet territory and to a certain improvement in the provisioning apparatus. But in general, the food resources of the country are threatened with exhaustion and no improvement in the requisitioning apparatus will be able to remedy this fact. The tendency to ward economic decay can be combated by the following methods:

  1. Replace the requisitioning of surpluses with a levy proportionate to the quantity of production (a sort of progressive tax on agricultural income), set up in such a way that it is nevertheless more profitable to increase the acreage sown or to cultivate it better;
  2. Institute a more rigorous correlation between the delivery to the peasants of industrial products and the quantity of grain furnished by them, not only by cantons and towns, but also by rural farms.

    Have the local industrial enterprises participate in this task. Pay the peasants for the raw materials, the fuel and the food products supplied by them, in part in products of industrial enterprises.

In any case, it is clear that the present policy of the requisition of food products according to norms of consumption, of joint responsibility for the delivery of these products and of the equal distribution of industrial products, is lowering agricultural production, bringing about the atomisation of the industrial proletariat and threaten to disorganise completely the economic life of the country.