The Peasant Question and its Relation to the Leninist Theory of Revolution of Two-Stages

Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas - Peasant Movement of the Philippines

The following article was sent to The Marxist-Leninist by the author, Butch S. Espere:

The Peasant Question and its Relation to the Leninist Theory of Revolution of Two-Stages

By Butch S. Espere

(Author’s Note: This article, a spin-off from notes made by the author for a discussion forum at the International People’s College, Helsingor, Denmark, aims to trace the line of development of Lenin’s theory on the agrarian and peasant question in Russia, especially on the matter of how he arrived at the idea of nationalization of land as a line in the agrarian programme of the Russian Revolution and how the question is at the core of his theory of 2-stage revolution.)

Line of development of Lenin’s theory on the agrarian and peasant question:

In 1895, Lenin wrote The Development of Capitalism in Russia. In this article, he advanced the social analysis that Russia was already a capitalist society, demolishing the Narodniki myth of a “unique Russian case”. This laid the theoretical basis for the call that the proletarian revolution could already be launched in Russia.

In 1898, Lenin wrote The Tasks of Russian Social Democrats, a polemics against the “Economists” ensconced in Rabocheyo Mysl. This article broached of the democratic tasks of the proletarian revolution, prefiguring his theory of the proletarian revolution of two stages.


When Lenin joined the editorial board of Iskra right after his release from Siberian prison, there were two things that engrossed his mind and to which he devoted his revolutionary energy. One was how to unite the scattered circles of Marxists (previously known as social democrats) around his idea of establishing a party that would act as the political centre of the working class movement. But it did not end there. Lenin’s idea of a party was that of a single whole, one that is united in a common programme, a common goal, and common strategy for reaching that goal.  

Lenin talking with peasants

At the time he was sketching his plan to realize the establishment of a party, the Marxists who were scattered in so many small circles inside and outside of Russia spoke in so many tongues, some of them championing ideas that, to Lenin’s sharp eyes, placed obstacles to the immediate launching of the Russian revolution. One strand which expressed this divergence of thought was on the issue: in the given alignment of class forces in Russia, with whom should the proletariat forge alliance in launching the Russian revolution?. The majority of Marxists in Russia, Plekhanov included, answered this question, “of course, with the bourgeoisie!”  

Lenin believed otherwise. At this time, he was still to develop the strategy for the course and direction of the Russian revolution but it was already clear to him that such alliance did not lie with the bourgeoisie. He perceived early that given the conditions and character of Russian society, it could not have produced a bourgeoisie strong enough to lead even its own (bourgeois) revolution. He therefore cast the lot of the proletariat with the peasantry. This was his second concern when he was into drafting the programme of the party and it was to this that he turned his writings on the agrarian and peasant question.  

Lenin “revises” Plekhanov: How Lenin conceived the agrarian and peasant question in 1901-1904 

Taking off from his earlier essay The Development of Capitalism in Russia in which he asserted that capitalist relations had already predominated Russian agriculture, he set out to first resolve the issue: based on the given objective conditions of the moment, what is the correct proletarian standpoint on the agrarian and peasant question that would enable the working class to bring the peasantry to the side of proletarian revolution?   

Resolving this question first was of paramount significance to him on two main grounds: first, he wanted to clear the cobwebs coming from those sections of the Marxist movement which argued along the line that would have the proletariat placed its reliance on the leading role of the bourgeoisie in the Russian revolution, a view which even Plekhanov held; second, resolving this question was indissolubly linked to his theory of the democratic tasks of the proletariat – that the proletariat must not confine its struggles to its own class interests but rather it must also advance the interests and struggles of the “non-proletarian strata” in order to achieve what Lenin called “revolutionary sweep”, a theory which he had developed as early as 1898 and found maturity in What Is To Be Done?   

Once this point is seen, it leads to the realization that the agrarian and peasant question is moreover indissolubly linked to his theory of proletarian revolution of two stages.  

This was the pivot of his position that found expressions in his articles since he joined Iskra in 1900 up to 1904.  Because Lenin placed his reliance on the peasantry, he had to almost single-handedly wage ideological struggles against the view that placed the fate of the revolution on the supposed “revolutionary role” of the Russian bourgeoisie and called for alliance with this vacillating class.     

Up to this point, the only agrarian programme that guided the Russian Marxist movement was that written by Plekhanov in 1885. It was a programme that badly needed a revision in the light of the imperative Lenin had in mind.  Thus, waging his struggles against the “bourgeoisie-is-the-natural-ally” view  from the vantage point of 1901, Lenin had to first clarify the nature of the peasantry as a class.  

It is true, he conceded, that the peasantry as a whole is a reactionary class because it is beholden to small landholdings and stands as the rural representative of petty-commodity production which retards the further development of society.  But after saying this, here was vintage Lenin who was a master of dialectics. For unlike other Russian Marxists who interpreted Marx dogmatically and saw the peasantry as a uni-dimensional class, he asserted that the reactionary character of the peasantry differed from the reactionary character of the bourgeoisie. He meant by this that the position of the peasantry to the proletarian revolution depends on the given stage of the revolution and depends on their circumstances in life; he then argued that it could be a revolutionary force in that stage of the revolution that would  fight against the Tsarist autocracy and serfdom. 

In clarifying this nature of the Russian peasantry, Lenin would have none of those theories which characterized the peasantry according to textbook interpretation of Marx. He posited such nature on the objective conditions in Russia. He argued that there were two class antagonisms confronting the Russian peasantry, namely: the exploitation of the peasantry by capital and the exploitation and oppression of the peasantry by feudal landlordism (here it must be noted that he sometimes used the term “Asiatic barbarism”). To Lenin, the first was developing and becoming predominant and “more acute”; the second was diminishing but nonetheless “the most significant” at the given moment, being left unresolved and even exacerbated by the 1861 Reforms which caused the ruin of the peasantry and made widespread the use of corvee-labor.  

From here, he argued that the correct Marxist position on the agrarian and peasant question was to first resolve the second antagonism in order to give full play to the first.  But while arguing this point, he also cautioned against such position and proposals where the Marxists might fall into the trap of resolving the second by protecting small holdings and small-scale agriculture production.   

In the article which outlined his draft agrarian programme, The Working Class and the Peasantry (which saw print in Iskra in 1901), he asserted: “The small peasantry can free itself from the yoke of capital only by associating itself with the working-class movement, by helping the workers in their struggle for the socialist system, for transforming the land, as well as the other means of production (factories, works, machines, etc.), into social property. Trying to save the peasantry by protecting small-scale farming and small holdings from the onslaught of capitalism would be a useless retarding of social development; it would mean deceiving the peasantry with illusions of the possibility of prosperity even under capitalism, it would mean disuniting the labouring classes and creating a privileged position for the minority at the expense of the majority. That is why Social-Democrats will always struggle against senseless and vicious institutions such as that which forbids the peasant to dispose of his land, such as collective liability, or the system of prohibiting the peasants from freely leaving the village commune or freely accepting into it persons belonging to any social-estate. But, as we have seen, our peasants are suffering not only and not so much oppression by capital as from oppression by the landowners and the survivals of serfdom. Ruthless struggle against these shackles, which immeasurably worsen the condition of the peasantry and tie it hand and foot, is not only possible but even necessary in the interest of the country’s social development in general; for the hopeless poverty, ignorance, lack of rights and degradation, from which the peasant suffer, lay an imprint of Asiatic backwardness upon the entire social system of our country. Social-Democracy would not be doing its duty if it did not render every assistance to this struggle. This assistance should take the form, briefly put, of carrying the class struggle into the countryside”. 

To understand the gist of this article, it is well to remember that at this time, Lenin was yet to develop his theory of two-stage proletarian revolution. In this article, Lenin was, therefore, not yet as much concerned with specificities of the role of the peasantry in the stages involved in the launching of the proletarian revolution in Russia as with the more important question of shattering the idea that the peasantry could not be an ally of the working class movement. So he focused here on pointing out what were those objective conditions that could stoke the revolutionary fervor of the peasantry and what must be the attitude – the line – of the social-democrats to this. The important thing for Lenin when he wrote this article was to clear the theoretical and political grounds for linking the working class movement in the cities with the struggle of the peasantry in the countryside. To link these two struggles by addressing peasant interests – this is what he meant when he exhorted the Marxist movement to the task of carrying out the class struggle into the countryside.    

It must be noted though that at the time Lenin wrote this article, he still labored from his theory of “de-peasantization” (disintegrating) effect of capitalist penetration in Russian agriculture. In some points, he even considered the peasantry as no longer an integral class, as a mere “social-estate” in the fashion of the French peasants during the 1848 Revolution, because of the depeasantization process brought about by capitalist penetration in agriculture. Actually, there was nothing wrong in this theory except that it caused him to miscalculate the extent of the land problem in Russia and how this problem had particularly affected the different strata of the peasantry.  Given his miscalculation, he was confronted with the false issue of “what were those minimum political and economic demands that could unite a class so split into so many strata?”.   

This led him early on to a bifurcated (in his words, “complex”) approach to the agrarian and peasant question in which the problems of agricultural workers were subsumed to that part of the  programme that aimed to confront the dominance of capital, constituting the minimum programme of the Russian Marxist movement (minimum in the sense of  “partial improvements” of the conditions of the working class); while the problems of the peasantry as a class confronting serfdom,  especially the matter of corvee labor, were treated separately and more purposely directed toward the complete eradication of serfdom, constituting what Lenin called “the maximum within the minimum”.   

Thus, to the “feudal shackles” he referred to, Lenin put forward the line which tasked the Marxist movement to provide guiding light to the anti-feudal struggle of the peasantry and to help the peasantry to complete the eradication of serfdom. This line was at the core of his peasant demands in the draft agrarian programme that set out for Russian Marxists the way to carry out the class struggle in the countryside in order to link it with the working class movement.  The measures it contained were still far from transforming land into social property; in fact, they promoted small landholdings such as were contained in the proposal on the restitution of cut-off lands; therefore, they went against the grain of his caution about protecting small holdings.  To Lenin, if these measures appeared in contradiction to his caution, it was not so much the result of contradiction of theory but the result of the real contradiction in life.  

Trying to make sense of his draft programme out of “the war of progressive trends” and critics, particularly Martynov who argued that no matter what programme, the peasantry could not be “brought into the working class movement”,   Lenin elaborated his draft programme in a subsequent article The Agrarian Programme of Russian Social Democracy which had to appear elsewhere because it did not find approval from Plekhanov.  Here, he demolished Martynov’s “impossibility” theory and argued that any agrarian programme that Russian Marxists must advocate in order to bring the peasantry to the working class movement was contingent upon two highly “circumscribed conditions”.  

Just what are these conditions?  

Lenin in The Agrarian Programme of Russian Social Democracy: “We make the legitimacy of “peasant demands” in a Social-Democratic programme dependent, firstly, on the condition that they lead to the eradication of remnants of the serf-owning system, and, secondly, that they facilitate the free development of the class struggle in the countryside” 

What have these conditions to do with the tasks of the Russian Marxist movement?   

Lenin (in The Agrarian Programme of the RSD): “Generally speaking, it is reactionary to support small property because such support is directed against large-scale capitalist economy and, consequently, retards social development, and obscures and glosses over the class struggle. In this case, however, we want to support small property not against capitalism but against serf-ownership; in this case, by supporting the small peasantry, we give a powerful impulse to the development of the class struggle. Indeed, on the one hand, we are thus making a last attempt to fan the embers of the peasants’ class (social-estate) enmity for the feudal-minded landlords. On the other hand, we are clearing the way for the development of the bourgeois class antagonism in the countryside, because that antagonism is at present masked by what is supposedly the common and equal oppression of all the peasants by the remnants of the serf-owning system”. 

It is because of these considerations that Lenin in this period held in reserve his advocacy of nationalization of land, not to mention that Plekhanov disapproved it and he was avoiding a confrontation with “the father of Russian Marxism” in view of the coming party congress. Most importantly, he was not yet furnished the historical material from which insights could be drawn to enable him to go beyond abstraction.   So that the furthest that his draft agrarian programme went was to advocate the peasants’ demands for restitution of cut-off lands, confiscation of monasterial lands, and expropriation of those cut-off lands that were used in keeping the peasants in serf bondage.  

To the Narodniki Nadezhdin who advocated nationalization of state, church and landlords’ lands only to later allocate them to the muzhiks on long term leases, Lenin dismissed such proposal as “valid in principle only as a bourgeois and not as a socialist”, a demand “which is much less expressive of the immediate tasks of the democratic movement in the meaning of struggle against the serf-owning system”.  By this he meant that the social democratic movement could not demand for anything beyond what was allowable by the conditions sought to be achieved in the democratic stage of the two-stage proletarian revolution.   

This much is clear: Lenin was already an advocate of nationalization at this time. But in his advocacy of nationalization, he differed from the Narodniks in that he recognized the proper moment for issuing it. Such a moment was the appearance of the peasant movement in the 1905 Revolution which gave Lenin the material basis for gauging the real sentiment of the peasantry.  

The 1905 Revolution : the turning point in the development of Lenin’s conception of the agrarian and peasant question 

But whatever reservations about nationalization of land Lenin might have in 1901-1904, these were banished in the aftermath of the 1905 Revolution. The Bolsheviks failed to provide leadership to this revolution, immersed as they were in intra-party struggles against the Mensheviks.  But despite this failure, Lenin had witnessed in the historic 1905 Revolution two important events from which he plucked insights and lessons  that sharpened his approach to the agrarian and peasant question, lessons and insights that were to serve as ingredients for the development of his theory of proletarian revolution of two-stages. .  

The first of these events was the spontaneous appearance of workers’ soviets. To other Marxists, the soviets were just one of those phenomena that are necessarily brought to life in extraordinary situations. But Lenin saw something else, one that furnished him the material for making, after Marx, yet another touchstone in the theoretical arsenal of proletarian revolutionary strategy.  

In his Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, which he wrote while the events were still unfolding before his eyes, he applied Marx’s theory of “uninterrupted revolution” on the unfolding events and conditions. In the light of Marx’s theory, he figured out the strategic course of  the Russian Revolution and the conditions necessary for such course to take.  

He asserted that the Russian Revolution would have to pass through two stages, namely: the bourgeois democratic stage and the stage of socialist revolution. It could not be otherwise because it could not proceed to the second without passing through the first. But, he clarified, the first stage of this revolution is different from the bourgeois democratic revolution of old because it would be throughout led by the proletariat which should ensure that it proceeded immediately to its socialist stage. For this revolution to proceed to its logical conclusion, the proletariat must forge the peasant-worker alliance which Lenin called the foundation of proletarian revolutionary strength  –  the precondition for the revolution to sweep away the Tsar and serfdom. From this,  he put forward that in the event of decisive victory, the way for leading the democratic stage of the revolution to its logical conclusion was the formation of a “revolutionary democratic government of workers and peasants”.     

How did the peasantry come into the picture when just three years before Lenin was still grappling with the issue of how to link the peasant struggle with the workers’ movement? This brings to the fore the second event.  

In the 1905 Revolution and thereafter going up to 1907,  the peasantry stepped forward as a revolutionary force, bringing into the scene a real peasant movement and agrarian revolution. They confiscated lands in the provinces, burned the granaries of landlords, and attacked the offices of local land registry. They also formed the Peasant Union, the first of such peasant organizations in Russia, showing that even without the guidance of social-democratic consciousness, they could march as one single whole in the struggle against the Tsar and serfdom.  And they came in such numbers that when the Tsar convened a series of dumas to appease the insurgent masses, various political parties sprouted to claim the allegiance of this large constituency, with many of those parties motivated by the pernicious intent to stem the revolutionary momentum of the peasant struggle and to lead it down the path of bourgeois reformism.  

This scene as witnessed by Lenin cleared the field for him to finally jettison his reservations about demands that might further splinter the ranks of the peasantry. More than this, the peasant movement that sprang in 1905 enabled him to understand more deeply the nature of the peasant struggle, its economic basis and ideological significance. It forced him to go deep down into the real situation of the peasantry that enabled him to capture the extent of the land problem in Russia and grasp the real issue (the “pivot” of the agrarian  revolution as he called it) behind peasant demands for confiscation not only of cut-off lands but all landed property, particularly the confiscation of the latifundias of big landlords and the nobility. Here at last is the historical material that enabled him to go beyond abstraction; in the process, he was able to clarify the essential nature of the democratic stage of the Russian proletarian revolution.  

He asserted that the main content of this stage is not the interests of the bourgeoisie as in the bourgeois revolution of old in the West but agrarian revolution  –  the peasants’ striving for land.  With this formulation, Lenin finally found the key for linking the peasant struggles with the working class movement necessary for forging the peasant-worker alliance and for linking the democratic stage of the revolution to its socialist stage. With this formulation, his theory of two-stage revolution came into full circle, with the peasant demands for land furnishing the content and character of the first stage.   

The appearance of the peasant movement in this period, with its epoch-making acts of confiscation and burning, set afire debates among various political parties that touched on the issue of peasant demands. It was on the furnace of these debates that Lenin reviewed and revised the agrarian programme of the social democrats and pushed for nationalization of land.   

In fact, since the peasant movement was already doing what the peasants had to do to the lands of landlords, the debates were a foregone conclusion as these were predetermined by the peasantry which already acted for themselves before their representatives could argue about the peasant cause and demands. Except for the liberals who leaned in the name of pacifism to the side of Tsarist reaction and preservation of landlord power, in the form of supporting the “Stolypin solution”, almost all political parties were already united on confiscation of landed property and nationalization of land. As Lenin noted, they differed only in the proposed  targeted lands, scope and terms of transfer.  But Lenin did more than sorting out those proposals. It was he who dissected each political position and proposal in order to expose their theoretical underpinnings, i.e., their “rational core” or their “ideological cloaks”, and clarify the social and ideological basis for nationalization.     

The 1906 Stockholm Congress: Lenin “revises” himself  –  from the “less expressive” to “the last word” of the bourgeois revolution 

The upheavals of 1905 were signals to Lenin that Russia had entered a revolutionary situation. To lead the peasantry and the masses and direct the course of the situation, the proletariat must consolidate and strengthen its party. It was with this purpose that Lenin called for a unity congress.  

With the ranks of the Bolsheviks decimated by tsarist reprisals, Lenin and company would find themselves in the minority in the Stockholm Congress in 1906.  It was, therefore, rough sailing for them from the start. Amidst the hostile posture of the Mensheviks, Lenin declared it the duty of Marxism to promote agrarian revolution and argued that the political line that could best respond to the demands of the peasantry for land, which demand would fan their revolutionary fire while fulfilling the conditions for giving full play to the class struggle in the countryside, was nationalization of land.   

How did Lenin come to this conclusion?  

Taking a second look at the land configuration in Russia, he saw that “over four-fifths of [over 12 million] total number of households are, at the present level of peasant agricultural technique, on the brink of semi-starvation” because of lack of land. And they lacked land because it was locked in the latifundias of big landlords and nobility, a problem that could only be cracked if the agrarian revolution extends to those landholdings. It was this which set the peasants against the landlords and nobility. Lenin found in this situation the socio-economic basis of the peasant struggle, the “pivot” of the agrarian revolution.  

But why nationalization?  

Whereas the Mensheviks, the Narodniki-SRs, and the Trudovik-SRs proposed confiscation, expropriation and municipalization or nationalization in order to merely fulfill the peasants’ petty-bourgeois yearning for land to own,  Lenin extended his advocacy of nationalization to an analysis on why it was the most expedient possible line for that revolutionary course whose direction was set toward fulfilling those conditions for giving full play to the class struggle in the countryside and bringing forthrightly the proletarian revolution to its socialist  stage.  

His analysis exposed that all the lofty slogans about “equality”, “labor principle” and “peasant socialism” mouthed by the Narodniki-SRs and Trudoviks were mere ideological cloaks for the peasant hunger for a land to own.  To Lenin, such peasant hunger though petty-bourgeois was legitimate. It was the ideological cloaks which were not since the Narodniks of various shades had tried to elevate them into “absolute principles”, unmindful of the petty-bourgeois essence of the peasant demand for the land of the landlords and nobility. He then pointed out that the mistake of the vulgar Marxists was to see this as mere manifestation of the reactionary character of the peasantry. Without losing sight that such yearning was in essence petty-bourgeois, he recognized it as the revolutionary element of the moment for it was exactly this yearning which incited the peasantry to rise in agrarian revolution against the landlord class.   

The point for the revolutionaries was to create the conditions for giving vent to this revolutionary element instead of restraining it with their own fear of peasant reaction.  

What are those conditions? 

Lenin theorized that Russian agriculture development stood at a juncture where there lay two roads. The first of these was the so-called “Prussian road” that would develop agriculture along the line of large plantations and the creation of a small strata of rich peasants that would serve as social buffer against peasant revolts. Because it relies on large plantations, its leading role lies with the big landlords.  

In Russia, the main exponent of this road was Stolypin, a Tsarist minister who, with liberal support from the Cadets (Constitutional Democrats),  tried to break up the revolutionary situation shaping in the countryside with his line of dismantling the mir (communal lands) and transforming the poor peasants into rich peasants. In so far as it would lead Russian agriculture to capitalist development, it was progressive. But. Lenin asserted, it was not worthy of proletarian support because it would be led by the landlords and meant the preservation of landlord power. Its development was going to be painfully slow for the landlord presence in this model meant keeping the peasantry in oppression, degradation, and poverty.  

The other road was what Lenin called the “American road”, a line of capitalist development in agriculture spearheaded by the small independent peasant. Like the “Prussian road”, it would also create a strata of rich peasants.  

Both models, therefore, would lead to the capitalist development of Russian agriculture. But Lenin cast his lot with the “American road” because its evolution in Russia  held out the promise of rapid development and the “best conditions” – under commodity production – for the mass of peasants. Moreover, he envisaged that its element of creating a rural bourgeoisie (rich peasants) would  hasten the conditions for giving full play to the class struggle in the countryside that would bring the countryside closer to socialist construction as it would set the rich peasants in antagonism with the rural proletariat.   

It was into this framework of development in agriculture that Lenin pushed the line of nationalization, believing that nationalization was the best course for facilitating the “American model” as it would put into place an independent peasant-led development in agriculture without doing much violence to the peasants’ petty-bourgeois striving for the land of the landlord class, without doing much violence to the “ultimate point” of the agrarian revolution. But on this, he parted ways with the Narodniks, Trudoviks and Mensheviks who deified petty-bourgeois, small scale farming. The main point for Lenin was that such petty-bourgeois mode of production borne by the “American model” should not be glorified but, rather, carried promptly forward to socialist construction.   

In fact, by cutting down the latifundia system and all landed estates, nationalization would also cut down the dominance of the landlord class. It is therefore on the side of the anti-feudal thrust of agrarian revolution.  To prove that nationalization even snugly fits into the capitalist framework of development, he showed that it is still circumscribed by the law of value where that part of surplus value – called ground rent – would be merely transferred from the landlord class to the state.       

The agrarian programme drafted by Lenin would be rejected by the Mensheviks who opted for a kind of agrarian programme that looked like a basket of various peasant crops, an eclectic agrarian programme that incorporated all the proposals of various peasant parties. Nevertheless, the Bolsheviks succeeded to put it  on the agenda from which no revolutionary in Russia could since turn his back.


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