The peasant question has always been a very important question in Marxism-Leninism since the very inception of Marxism. For Marx, it never lost his attention except for a short period here and there. After the Communist Manifesto, during which it went into the background for some time, it jumped to the forefront in Marx’s writings especially on the unfolding revolutions in France and Germany. After that Marx and Engels went further more deeply into this question in the light of problems of developing countries outside west Europe. This question however was attended theoretically, politically and also practically as a far more urgent and serious question by Lenin during and after the Russian Revolution in the light of the teachings of Marx and Engels. What we learn from their writing is that the uniqueness and complicated character of peasant question as existing in every country of the world is in this that the peasant possesses two souls, one of a proprietor and the other of a worker. Here in lies the difficulty in dealing with the question as to how the mass of the peasantry of a country is to be drawn into the revolutionary movement led by the proletariat. Same is the case of the urban petty bourgeois class and small producers who are in the same boat as that of the peasants in all countries.
It is correctly acknowledged that the experience of dealing with the peasant question in the Russian Revolution and the discussion that arose therefrom on this question still has enormous impact both on India’s peasant question and the political agenda of revolutionary Left movement related to dealing with this question whose main purpose is to winning over an ally to the side of the proletariat and proletarian revolution. The main question in addressing peasant question is hence this, ‘what is to be done to win over the peasants who are themselves differentiated into different strata and classes, to the side of the working class and the proletariat’?
My contention here with regard to the present-day farmers and peasants movement is that with the promulgation of the new agricultural laws and the entry of the corporates in the Indian agriculture, the Indian peasantry might behave as a single class just as the Russian peasantry behaved vis-à-vis in the revolution against Tsar from 1905 to 1917 when contradictions between various segments remained largely muted.
Attitude To Different Classes Of Peasants
In a country that has large landed states, whether capitalist, feudal or semi feudal estates it poses no challenge in deciding what is to be done with them as a clear distinction is generally made between the landlords, the owner of the landed states and the rest of the population living off agriculture under those states. In these cases, the landlords act as fetters on economic development i.e. on the development of capitalism in agriculture and therefore they must be expropriated.
The difficulty lies where there are other major segments of the agricultural population, namely the peasantry, that is differentiated into more than a couple of classes from poor to rich whose appraisal in terms of their political or revolutionary potentials poses a lot of difficulties in the form of too many different approaches to them. Therefore, we have to see the views of Marx, Engels and Lenin about these sections and segments.
Peasant Question In Marx And Engels’ Writing
Marx wrote in the Manifesto itself that there is no need to abolish small peasants. Beyond this, while the Manifesto contains but only passing remarks on the peasant question. There is only a mention of ‘the peasant’ or the ‘peasants’ as a whole in a couple of places in the Manifesto. Elsewhere it is stated that ‘there is no need to abolish’ certain types of property like that of the small peasant [MECW 6, page 488-98].
Marx’s views get exemplified in his thesis ”The Class Struggles in France” from 1848 to 1850 and then in ”The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.”
Marx’s writes in “The Class Struggles in France” – ‘The French workers could not take a step forward, could not touch a hair of the bourgeois order, until the course of the revolution had aroused the mass of the nation, the peasants and petty bourgeois standing between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, against this order, against the rule of capital, and had forced them to attach themselves to the proletarians as their protagonists.’
To draw a parallel here to what is happening in India, a historic peasant movement is going on against the corporates which in final effect will go against capitalist system if it further intensifies and working-class forces are still not in a position to influence it apart from the fact that some petty bourgeois activists and ideologues of the proletariat are supporting or opposing this movement. Working class is in no way in any position to take a step forward or to touch hair of the bourgeois order. This is how matter stands right now when we have quoted Marx’s statement here.
Similarly Marx writes in ”The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon” – ‘Napoleon was the only man who had exhaustively represented the interests and the imagination of the peasant class, newly created in 1789’ [MECW Vol 10]
He further writes in ”The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon” – ‘Bonaparte represents a class, and the most numerous class of the French society at that, the small holding peasantry…A smallholding, a peasant and his family, alongside them another smallholding, another peasant and another family. A few score of these make up a village and a few score of villages make up a department. In this way, the great mass of the French nation is formed by simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in sack form a sack of potatoes’ [MECW Vol 11].
So clearly, here it is clear that what to talk of rich peasants, even the small holding peasants, if they are not the ally of the working class, are bound to become an ally of the enemy of the working class. That’s why winning over the peasantry constitute one of the most foremost important tasks of the proletariat.
In the above Marx’s writings, the ‘Peasantry as a Class’ refers to the ‘class of small holding peasants’ that look like synonyms and in which other sections of the peasants particularly the bigger ones or the landless etc are outside it. This so occurred because Marx was dealing with the question of peasants in the French society where ‘the most numerous class of French society’ was the small holding peasants. So, we can infer that the references to the ‘peasant’ or ‘the peasant class’ in the Manifesto or in “The Eighteenth Brumaire” or in “The Class struggle in France” were, indeed, to the small holding class of peasants or small peasants only. This thinking seems likely to be true and correct also because the Napoleonic Code benefited primarily the small peasantry.
The political implication of what Marx writes in ‘The Class Struggle in France’ is clear i.e. the small peasantry could and must join the proletariat in its cause which automatically means that bigger (rich and landlord) peasants could not under any circumstances agree to fight the bourgeoisie under the leadership of the proletariat or when the proletariat is in the vanguard position of such a fight.’
It is to be noted that it wasn’t Marx himself who wrote on the stratification of the peasants. It was only Engels who had dealt with this in the context of peasant revolts in Germany. Engels wrote these articles dealing with peasant question in Sept 1851 i.e. even before the publication of The Eighteenth Brumaire that was published in December 1851.
Of course, Marx knew what Engels’ views were on the peasant question. In his article, which happens to be his first one in the collection ”Revolution and Counter Revolution in Germany”, Engels wrote that ‘there was the great class of the small farmers, the peasantry, which with its appendix of farm-labourers constitutes a considerable majority of the entire nation. But this class (i.e. peasantry _the present author) again subdivided itself into different fractions. There were, firstly, the more wealthy farmers, what is called in Germany ‘Gross’- and ‘Mittel-Bauern’, proprietors of more or less extensive farms, and each of them commanding the services of several agricultural labourers. This class, placed between the large untaxed feudal landowners and the smaller peasantry and farm-labourers, for obvious reasons found in an alliance with the anti-feudal middle class of the towns its most natural course’ [MECW Vol 11].
Further in the same paragraph Engels also refers to three other classes – small freeholders, feudal tenants, and farm labourers that are characterised as separate classes and not as the fractions of the same class.
In ‘The Peasant Question in France and Germany’ (1894) Engels further analysed deeply various rural classes more extensively than before but the analysis was limited and confined mainly to France and Germany with reference to the latter half of the 19th century. For elsewhere or for other countries of Europe and the world, Engels remarked that the class structure must be different in those countries.
According to him, leaving aside the big landed estates, there were four rural classes, namely big, middle and small peasants and farm servants. But the small peasant occupies the key position in his analysis who was either “the owner or tenant – particularly the former – of a patch of land no bigger, as a rule, than he and his family can till, and no smaller than can sustain his family” [MESW, page 383].
Thus he also defines the small peasants here according to which the small peasant was self-supporting. His family labour sufficed for cultivation and the produce of the land somehow sustained his family followed however by a gradually worsening of his condition under the impact of capitalist farming, due to which he was to later become unable to keep draft animals and lose over half of his farm productive activity in handicrafts, while taxes, partition of the family land, and rising debts continued to cripple him. He ‘is hopelessly doomed. He is a future proletarian’, writes Engels (p 384).
This is what Engels says – “…the peasant of today has lost half of his former productive activity. Formerly, he and his family produced, from raw material he had made himself, the greater part of the industrial products that he needed; the rest of what he required was supplied by village neighbors who plied a trade in addition to farming and were paid mostly in articles of exchange or in reciprocal services. The family, and still more the village, was self-sufficient, produced almost everything it needed. It was natural economy almost unalloyed; almost no money was necessary. Capitalist production put an end to this by its money economy and large-scale industry. But if the Mark emoluments represented one of the basic conditions of his existence, his industrial side line was another. And thus the peasant sinks ever lower. Taxes, crop failures, divisions of inheritance and litigations drive one peasant after another into the arms of the usurer; the indebtedness becomes more and more general and steadily increases in amount in each case — in brief, our small peasant, like every other survival of a past mode of production, is hopelessly doomed. He is a future proletarian…. As such, he ought to lend a ready ear in socialist propaganda. But he is prevented from doing so for the time being by his deep-rooted sense of property. The more difficult it is for him to defend his endangered patch of land, the more desperately he clings to it, the more he regards the Social-Democrats, who speak of transferring landed property to the whole of society, as just as dangerous a foe as the usurer and lawyer. How is Social-Democracy to overcome this prejudice? What can he offer to the doomed small peasant without becoming untrue to itself? (bold ours)
The further paragraph written by Marx proves that it is not our task to directly and plainly support or oppose small peasants’ aspirations. The revolutionary task before the proletariat is to inculcate growth of communist consciousness in them and only in this stride the proletariat supports the small peasants.
Engels also defines big and middle peasants as those categories which ‘cannot manage without wage workers… The big and middle peasant must likewise inevitably succumb to the competition of capitalist production and the cheap overseas corn as is proved by the growing indebtedness and the everywhere evident decay of these peasants as well’ (p 396).
So here, Engels says that big and middle peasants like small peasants also succumb to the competition of the capitalist production and they are also most likely to get ruined if the capitalist farming continues and grows to a certain given level. In India, we can see this happening after a very long existence and practice of capitalist farming whose first phase brought ruin mainly to small, poor and lower middle peasants, while the onset of its second phase is all directed against all the sections of the peasantry, including the upper middle and the rich peasant sections. Those who try to see today’s rich and upper middle peasant with the decades old spectacle are not correct. The final victory of the capitalist farming will naturally expropriate the rich peasantry too.
Not to mention, the farm servants or day labourers obviously stand apart from the landowning peasant classes and do not have any land. Wages are the only source of their livelihood.
Now, at a programmatic level, the attitude of socialists to the last class poses no problem as Engels said that ‘Of course, a workers’ party has to fight, in the first place, on behalf of the wage workers, that is for the male and female servantry and the day labourers” (p 396). There is no difference of opinion among us on this. Engels quotes from the French Party document of 1894 and stands in approval to this – “it is the duty of socialism to put the agricultural proletarians again in possession – collective or social in form – of the great domains after expropriating their present idle owners” (p 386). There is not difference of opinion on this too.
On the other hand, the attitude to the small peasant is complex and our attitude to the middle and big peasants is even far more complex.
Engels says that he sees no ‘use for the small peasant as a party member if he expects us to perpetuate his property in his smallholding’ (MESW, page 392).
So just supporting the peasants is not the task of the vanguard of the proletariat, not even in the case of small peasants.
But Engels also says that the party of the proletariat must be ‘decidedly on the side of the small peasant’, and must ‘do everything at all permissible to make his lot more bearable, to facilitate his transition to the cooperative should he decide to do so’. He also says that the working-class party must help him remain on his small holding ‘for a protracted length of time’ till he opts to join the peasants’ cooperatives.
So here the ambiguity remains as to what exactly is to be done to the small peasants. Let us read this this important paragraph of Engels that makes the point of support clear to us. He writes – “we do this not only because we consider the small peasant who does his own work as virtually belonging to us, but also in the direct interest of the party. The greater the number of peasants whom we can save from being actually hurled down into the proletariat, whom we can win to our side while they are still peasants, the more quickly and easily the social transformation will be accomplished” (pp 394-95).
So here, the task is well set what we have to say to the small peasants.
Moving to what we have to say to the big and middle peasants who also decay and disintegrate under capitalism, what Engels writes is again very important.
In case of big and middle peasants, too, Engels obliges us with a way, however the only one way, of helping the big and middle peasants against their inevitable decay under capitalism. He recommends cooperative farming in their case, too. He writes that “here too the pooling of farms to form cooperative enterprises, in which the exploitation of labour will be eliminated more and more… Otherwise we shall have to abandon them to their fate…Most likely we shall be able to abstain here from resorting to forcible expropriation” (p 397).
Here, in case of middle and big peasant, Engels’ words are worth noting. What he says is very important. He says that the big farmers also decay in the wake of capitalist development and hence they can also be helped but in only one-way i.e.by pooling of their farms to form cooperative enterprises without leaving any scope for the exploitation of farm labourers. His last line in the quote is a pure indication that big peasants may not heed to our suggestions as they may not agree to an exploitationless peasant farming in the form of cooperatives under the leadership of the proletariat. That’s why he writes in a threatening manner like this: Otherwise we shall have to abandon them to their fate…Most likely we shall be able to abstain here from resorting to forcible expropriation”
So, Engels has set the task insofar as our task towards peasants are concerned. Now in 2021, the chances of big and middle peasants getting ruined because of competition of capitalist farming is even far greater. So, when the whole peasantry is agitating today for the repeal of the three pro-corporate laws imposed on the peasants, to say that the upper middle and rich peasants have no reasons to agitate along with other lower rung peasants is a gross mistake, even if they have been till yesterday the only appropriator of the surplus production in the agriculture.
And lastly Engels ‘flatly’ denied, and it is also quite worthy of attention, that the party of the proletariat of any country “is charged with the task of taking into fold in addition to the rural proletarians and the small peasants, also the middle and big peasants… On certain questions we make common cause with them and be able to fight side by side with them for definite aims” (p 389, MESW).
In the preface (1875) to The Peasant War in Germany Engels stated the same even more clearly: “The bigger peasants belong to the bourgeoisie” [MECW Vol 21]. while Marx in his letter to Engels on April 16, 1856 remarked that ”The whole thing in Germany will depend on the possibility of backing the proletarian revolution by some second edition of the Peasant War. Then the affair will be splendid.’ [MESC, page 92].
Later Kautsky in 1899 in his celebrated thesis on peasantry examined and proved what Engels had said and came up with the evidence. He found that while the middle group of 5-20 hectares expanded in all respect both numbers and area under cultivation in comparison to all farms taken together, nevertheless, the process of proletarianisation continued as small farms were becoming more dependent than ever on wages or other earnings outside their own farms.
On the peasant question in other countries, such as Russia, with a lower degree of industrialisation, neither Marx nor Engels made any deep analysis. So this was left to be done by Lenin.
So far as the historical mission of capitalism in agriculture is concerned, it is but turning of the actual tillers of the soil into proletarians in the wake of the continuous development of capitalism in agriculture. Marx holds the same opinion as Engels holds. On primitive accumulation, in Capital, Marx underlined that capitalism required the actual tillers of the soil to be expropriated of any land and tools they possessed and turned into agricultural labourers. This had gone farthest in England, and was proceeding as well in other countries of the west. One possible, though not the only one, inference from all this is that the same course must be taken by other societies.
However, the peasants’ fate, just as peasants, can be saved or retained by the proletarian state for a quite long time till they themselves opt to become free of their small piece of land on the basis of higher and higher form of social organisation of production showing them the futility of holding on to that small piece of land for ever i.e. via cultivation through the formation of collective farms aided and helped by the proletarian state. So the proletariat must give a clarion call to the peasants to support their cause as only under proletarian state they life can sustain with decency and dignity, otherwise under capitalism they are doomed and bound to swell the ranks of the proletarian under capitalism with no decency and dignity whatsoever.
The Case Of Russia
Towards the end of the 19th century, two schools of revolutionaries, both owing allegiance to Marx, surfaced in Russia. One held that the old commune would go the way that Marx foresaw in 1867-68 i.e. would disintegrate to give rise to capitalism in Russian agriculture, while the other camp thought that Russia could skip the stage of capitalist transformation of agriculture (de-peasantisation as in England) and the commune could serve as the embryo of future socialist reconstruction. Chernyshevski (1859:188) who had not read Marx, took the latter position.
In the 1873 in ‘Afterword to the Second German Edition’ of Capital’ (vol I, page 15) Marx called Chernyshevski a ‘great Russian scholar and in his letter to ‘Otechestvenniye Zapiski’ in November 1877, Marx explicitly referred to the question posed by Chernyshevski: ‘Whether Russia should start, as its liberal economists wish, by destroying the rural community in order to pass to a capitalist system or whether, on the contrary, it can acquire all the fruits of the system without suffering its torment, by developing its own historical conditions’. Marx endorses in this letter Chernyshevski view [MECW 24]
Previously Marx differed from this.
In 1882, in the ‘Preface to the Second Russian Edition’ of the Manifesto (1882), Marx and Engels write: ‘If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the west, so that the two complement each other, the present Russian communal ownership may serve as the starting point for communist development’ [MECW 24].
In his reply to Vera Zasulich’s query broadly on the same two alternatives as above, Marx took more open stand in favour of commune. Earlier in 1881 he had explained why the analysis of Capital, chapter XXXII, was not relevant to Russia. He wrote – ‘Private property, based on personal labour…will be supplanted by capitalist private property, based on exploitation of the labour of others, on wage labour.’ i.e. in west Europe one form of private property was transformed into another, capitalist form.
But Marx said in his reply to Vera Zasulich’s query that it is not the case in Russia. He went on to say that: ‘the commune is the fulcrum of social regeneration in Russia, but in order that it may function as such, it would first be necessary to eliminate the deleterious influences which are assailing it from all sides, and then ensure for it the normal conditions of spontaneous development’ [MECW 24].
A decade after Marx died Engels spoke differently on this. In his letter (in 1893) to N F Danielson, a leading Narodnik thinker, he could see somewhat different outcome that occurred in the last one decade in the life of Russian peasantry. What was correct to say in 1882 was wrong in 1893. He advised him not to take ‘gloomier view’ of the emerging capitalism in Russia than was warranted by facts. He said that the commune could hardly develop into a higher social form. The reason he cited for this is that unless that ‘higher form was already in existence in another country’, the Russian communes could hardly develop into one. And so he said that the commune ‘is doomed.’
So Engels seemed to have thought by then that the die was cast in favour of capitalism in Russia just as Lenin did at about the same time. What is noticeable here is that Marx and Engels never gave any standard formula for this particularly for less developed and developing capitalist countries. They also not hesitated to own up his previous views when they proved wrong on a given subject.
Peasant Question In Russian Revolution And Lenin (Before The Revolution)
Lenin as an icon, after Marx and Engels, was much more revered than anyone else of his time. Later Stalin and Mao was also much revered icons but they were at best Leninist as both also called themselves.
Lenin was an admirer of Chernyshevski, though he differed from him on the question of fate of Russian Commune. In his earliest anti-Narodnik pamphlets during 1894, what he stated is quite a strong pointer of his complete and open views. He said, ‘No Marxist ever argued anywhere that there ‘must be’ capitalism in Russia ‘because’ there was capitalism in the west, and so on’ [LCW Vol 1, page 192]. The question was whether capitalism was or was not emerging in Russia, and what the party of the proletariat should do about it.
In Lenin’s most famous work, The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899, in LCW 3), what he writes carries a striking affinity with Engels’ 1893 letter to Danielson. In his preface to the volume, Lenin pays warm tributes to Kautsky’s work on the same subject as ‘the most noteworthy contribution to recent economic literature’ after Capital, volume III. He noticed that the ‘general process’ of capitalist evolution of agriculture as depicted by Kautsky was nearly the same to what was happening in Russia. Lenin was of the view that the middle peasants were being ‘ousted’ by the rich ones [LCW 3, page 181, 592-94]. He says that ‘the peasantry have completely split up into opposite groups’ (p 187). In his writing he showed that ‘the rural bourgeoisie or the well-to-do peasantry include the independent farms who carry cultivation on commercial lines in all its varied forms‘. He then writes that “…then come the owners of commercial and industrial establishments, the proprietors of commercial enterprises, etc. The combining of commercial agriculture with commercial and industrial enterprises is the type of combination of agriculture with industries that is specifically peculiar to this peasantry.” From among these well-to-do peasants a class of capitalist farmers is created…”The size of the farm, in a majority of cases, requires a labour force larger than that available in the family, for which reason the formation of a body of farm labourers and still more of day labourers, is a necessary condition for the existence of the well-to-do peasantry.”
What is important here in this is that well to do peasants in themselves are not capitalist farmers, however they emerge from the rich or well-to-do peasants. For capitalist farmers to emerge, a combination of the commercial agriculture and commercial and industrial enterprises is necessary. This will also mark the final victory of capitalism upon agriculture. A very tiny section of super rich peasants that emerges out of the rich and big peasants must head the commercial agricultural companies whose merger with the commercial and industrial enterprises will lead to final triumph of capitalism in agriculture.
Seeing this, final victory of capitalism upon agriculture in India can’t be said to have materialised in the truest sense of the word. Only with the successful entry of the corporates in agriculture will it be finally victorious. The rural bourgeois is still not a capitalist farmer in real sense of the term.
In the Agrarian Programme of 1902, the Social-Democratic party and the Narodniks both demanded that the communes’ ‘cut-off lands’ that was handed over to the nobles should be given back to the communes and redistributed to peasants through the elected peasant committees. Lenin had also supported this demand as it was a concrete demand against an erstwhile feudal step. But at the same time, Lenin writes that ‘trying to save the peasantry by protecting small-scale farming and small holdings would be a useless retardation of social development’ [LCW 6]
Later, when the peasant uprisings in the early years of 20th century arose, and above all, after the outbreak of the peasant revolution of 1905, Lenin’s ideas had gone a transformation. In place of a revolutionary ‘government of working class’ he called for a ‘revolutionary-democratic dictatorship’ based on workers peasant alliance. It was only in the wake of the 1905 Revolution that Lenin supported the call of the Trudoviki (formerly, Narodniks) for the confiscation of all landed estates (not just the cut-off land as before) for general redistribution. Although Lenin would have chosen the poor peasantry to become the exclusive beneficiaries in place of this general redistribution, as it might lead to the better-off peasantry taking a good slice of land.
After the revolution was suppressed, the government tried to alter the agrarian landscape in a major way. A powerful Czar minister Stolypin launched reforms to create a class of new farmers, the owners of ‘khutor’ and ‘otruba’, who would be separated from the communes, and hence not subject to the traditional system of repartitioning of land among the peasant members. This was an attempt to infuse capital i.e. dynamism that otherwise was not able to penetrate given the traditional system of repartitioning of land among the commune members. The new layer was also expected to act as a buffer between the landlords and the gentry on the one hand, and the mass of peasantry on the other. Both the Social Revolutionaries (SR, the successor to the Trudoviki) and Social Democrats denounced the new scheme. Why? Because Lenin observed ‘a fundamental shift towards a policy of accelerated police destruction and plundering of the commune. Its success would have necessarily inflamed struggles for land within the peasantry itself, and also it meant a long, a very long road along which the goal i.e. the final and complete consolidation of a purely bourgeois peasant economy could have been achieved. Obviously, Lenin didn’t opt this tortuous road.
In 1917-18, there were widespread peasant uprisings just following the February 1917 revolution that showed unquenched hunger of land among the peasants. From March to October of that year, a total of 5782 uprisings took place all over Russia in which peasants seized lands, implements, granaries and other moveables belonging to the nobles and the gentry. Violence engulfed as many as 482 out of 624 districts of old Russia. Seeing this Lenin planned to go ahead with the famous ‘April Theses’ that contained ‘nationalisation of all lands in the country’ and ‘their disposal by the local Soviets of Agricultural Labourers and Peasants’ Deputies’. But the Bolsheviks at the same time also supported the land seizure by the peasants (and this must be noted), while the SR with a strong hold over the peasants and stood for this all the previous years, impotently denounced the ‘lawless’ activities of the peasants (this must also be noted).
In August 1917, the SR adopted a radical programme of land reform, the Bolsheviks endorsed it, too. Lenin knew peasants wanted land. The SR radical land reform eventually became the first post Revolution Land Decree of the proletarian government and state in November 1917. Lenin was quite flexible in approach to practical movement of the peasants and all other classes.
This is a very important thing to understand what it really means leading in the midst of two ongoing revolutions. We must learn it from Lenin. It shows the meeting of peasant uprising and the proletarian revolution in one single cause. It is here that the great Socialist October Revolution and the peasants’ rebellions meet at a point that made the socialist revolution surprisingly spontaneous and bloodless. The Army Jawans needed peace, workers needed bread and the peasants needed land. All these met at one single point that is why comparatively a smaller party of the proletariat like Bolshevik Party could immediately turned from a minority to majority and easily smash the bourgeois rule without even shedding a single drop of blood. (to be continued)
[Originally published in The Truth: Platform for Radical Voices of The Working Class (Issue 9 / January 2021)]