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Leninist Agrarian Policy (1917-1928)

The jerry-built alliance between proletariat and peasantry was put to severe strain almost immediately after its inception. The peasants parceled out the land and fought to hold their gains in the face of the "white" counter-revolution and foreign intervention. But the harsh, forced food requisitions demand by the Bolsheviks soon alienated the countryside, and the resignation of the Left Social Revolutionaries from the Soviet government soon made it dear that political control was entirely in the hands of the Bolsheviks.

The gulf dividing the peasants from their erstwhile comrades-in-arms was aptly symbolized by the law on nationalization of the land (February 19, 1918), decreeing that all land was the property of the State and was to be used only by those willing to till it . Though the law itself remained for a long time only a paper document, it presaged future conflicts. The Bolshevik experiments with collective forms of agriculture were another ominous sign for the future, although the early collectives, chiefly composed of landless peasants and romantic urban intellectuals, constituted no threat to the established rural order.

Indeed, in the first decade of the Revolution there were no suggestions of the full-scale onslaught of collectivization that was to come, and no talk of a "collectivization drive." Lenin's frequently repeated warnings against coercion of the middle peasants (srednyaki) were taken to reflect settled policy. "You cannot create anything here by coercion," he said, and added: "Even in Europe, where [the middle peasantry] nowhere achieves such strength, where technology and culture, city life and railroads are tremendously developed, and where it would be easiest of all to think of such a thing, nobody, not even the most revolutionary of Socialists, has ever proposed adopting measures of coercion towards the middle peasantry."

But events themselves were to force a harsher policy and the revolutionary alliance was soon cracked wide open. Heavy strains were generated by the agricultural crisis and the ensuing famine of 1920-21. To meet the needs of the urban population, the Bolsheviks decreed a forced food levy (December 14, 1920) by which peasants were ordered to deliver their entire surplus to the State. The peasants, retaliating in kind, produced little more than their own needs demanded. Scattered peasant uprisings, together with the Kronstadt rebellion early in 1921, combined to force a change of policy on the new regime. The strict codes of "War Communism" were abrogated and the New Economic Policy (NEP) was launched. Delivery quotas were introduced (amounting to a tax-in-kind) and peasants were encouraged to produce for a flourishing free market.

Thus, for a time under NEP the peasants, who now controlled almost all the arable land, were permitted to enjoy the fruits of their revolutionary exertions. Agricultural production recovered rapidly and a degree of national prosperity resulted. But the Bolsheviks had paid a price for this prosperity - the restoration of free market relations between town and country.

The unstable compromise of NEP postponed the inevitable clash between the "proletarian dictatorship" and the victorious peasant revolution. Two parallel developments were rapidly to hasten the impending struggle: throughout the NEP period (1921-28) the peasants tightened their hold on the land, many of them growing relatively prosperous, and thereby fortifying their gains. At the same time the Bolsheviks were tightening their hold on the political machinery of the State and turning their party into a monolithic organization capable of an outright offensive against the rest of the country. Thus, the stage was set for the gigantic economic struggle of the late twenties.

The issue at stake between the Bolsheviks and the peasantry was only partly ideological. The conflict between the Bolshevik belief in the superior efficacy of large-scale "socialist" farming and the peasants' allegiance to his traditional "way of life" was important, but this conflict was subordinated to another one which was economic in character. The peasants and the Bolshevik regime faced each other across the table on which the grain produce of Russia was negotiated. And it was, in fact, in the realm of economics that the two antagonists met and clashed in the "war" which resulted in collectivized agriculture.

The problem which the Bolsheviks had to deal with may be briefly stated. NEP had insured the continued political existence of the regime; but salvation had been achieved at a great price. To obtain a sufficient supply of agricultural produce to feed the rising urban population and, if possible, to permit acceleration of industrial growth, it was necessary to provide increased incentives for the peasantry. But to provide incentives for an increased supply of produce to the cities, it was also necessary to create an industry capable of supplying peasants with the consumer goods and agricultural machinery they demanded in exchange. Without recourse to foreign capital, this, in turn, was impossible, unless a steadily increasing supply of agricultural produce was guaranteed.

The problem of breaking this vicious circle occupied the thoughts of the best Party theoreticians throughout the period of NEP. Some, like Bukharin, suggested a solution bearing some resemblance to the pre-Revolutionary policies of Witte and Stolypin - a "gradualist" approach to industrialization, encouragement of the more efficient middle peasant producers, and limited recourse to foreign capital. Trotsky, as the leader of the radical Left Wing, called for an immediate drive for industrialization in which the peasants would absorb the major shock. The theoretical debate rose to its climax in the late twenties, coinciding with the final victory of the Stalinist faction of the Bolshevik Party and the resurgence of the agricultural crisis in a new form.




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Page last modified: 05-08-2011 20:02:57 ZULU