2 SEPTEMBER 1972, Page 12


OF BOOKS ,,1:1-■(

Norman Stone on the Russian agrarian revolution

Victor Serge's book* is a good piece of reportage of the year 1918 in Russia, a year in which the Bolsheviks settled into power and also successfully carried out the dragooning of workers and peasants that their predecessors had been overthrown for attempting. Serge's eye for detail is good. Whether his view of the Revolution overall was a valid one is a different matter. He was French, though of Russian parentage, and arrived in Russia only after the Revolution was established. He began as an Anarchist, specialising in bank-robbery, and despised the proletariat as stupid beasts of burden. By a natural progression, he became a Bolshevik. Just the same, his book seems to owe more to the French revolution than to the Russian one. Much of what he has to say on the agrarian revolution is mistaken, and he does not understand the Russian economic situation before 1914. This is a class-war melodrama with a few figures thrown in, impressionistically, and a joke of a scholastic apparatus.

The original French — written over forty years ago — is perfectly well-known to students of the period. Presumably it has been translated now because the New Left — to whom the translation appears to be directed — have problems with their French. The translation is not very good and, beyond that, the editor-translator seems to think that his vague tinkerings in the Public Record Office constitute some kind of historical discovery worth recording. Besides, if translations of these old books are made, would it not be better to show, in footnotes, where the author got his facts wrong? The editor-translator, who disarmingly confesses "my own linguistic ncapacity," would not have been capable of this. He seems to suppose that, having communicated Serge's sans-culotte enthusiasms, he has done his job. He also contributes an introduction stuffed with the contemporary pieties. It ill-accords with the contents of Serge's book. "Near Lahti, where thousands of prisoners were taken by the Whites, the machine-guns worked for several hours a day. . . In one day some two hundred women were shot by explosive bullets; lumps of flesh were spattered out in all directions." "The futile battle of Yaroslavl left 4,000 workers without jobs and 4,000 persons homeless. Fourteen factories were destroyed, 2,147 houses, nine out of ten schools, 20 public buildings." "Several dozen officers were executed. They were led to the edge of the sea with heavy stones tied around their necks, and thrown in to drown. The corpses are 'floating in the harbour." Against this background, the editor writes: "It may not be too much to hope that this work will fulfil the main purpose . . of drawing the lessons of the last victorious workers' revolution as a necessary preparation for the successful advent of the next,"—the tone of his essay being such that we may suppose he means the next revolution should be more ruthless. Carlyle once remarked that over every history library the words should be engraved: "Dry Rubbish Shot Here." Perhaps he should have said, "Wet."

Kropotkin, toot emerges in a further The editor, Paul Avrich, writes: " Peter Kropotkin sounded a very modern note when he called on the young to join the struggle for social justice." Both of these works are thoroughly dated, in reality; stuffed with useless scientific lore of the type nineteenth century writers loved to recount. Kropotkin looked to the principle of 'Mutual Aid ' to provide the civilisation of the future. He thought that the principle already applied in the Russian peasant commune, and was neither the last nor the greatest figure to fall foul of its reality. Kropotkin's principle of Mutual Aid was a device by which land, held in common, could be transferred from family to family as needs appeared to dictate. As such, it was anti-capitalist, and its preservation, by Alexander II and his successors, indicates that the emancipation of the serfs in Russia was, unlike what Serge and his like asserted, an anti-capitalist measure. The commune was also anti-progressive, and baffled the Bolsheviks, as well as Stolypin, who tried in 1906 to reform It. Research into the problem has been difficult — partly because orthodoxies got in the way of it, partly because it is a subject of immense complexities, given that communes differed widely in function and size from place to place. The key works were written, in the :first two decades of this century, by patient Russian enquirers who failed, in person and spirit, to survive Stalinism. On the basis of their works, Mr Shanin has written a book* that lays low the orthodoxies of nright and left, and is one of the most important books to be written in Russian history over the last decade. The book is somewhat rebarbative in presentation — there are, for instance, sociological diagrams that do not seem to add anything essential to the text — and this may account for something of the silence with which the book has been greeted. But it is earth-shaking for all that.

The orthodoxy on Russian agriculture is faithfully repeated by Serge, without a sign that his translator knows how wrong it is. We are told that Russian agriculture was dominated by the lords, who first deprived the peasants of land and then rented it to them at high rates. Later, as the peasants rebelled against this, the government with the Stolypin reforms tried to create a class of rich peasants who would underpin the estate-owners' authority. These were the 'kulaks.' In 1917, the peasants revolted against the nobles, and expropriated the land. In 1918, they went on to expropriate the kulaks' land as well. In the NEP period of limited capitalism, the kulaks emerged again. But the capitalist profit-motive could not be integrated into a communist society; and Stalin expropriated the kulaks' land with the collectivisation of agriculture in .1929. Even supporters of this know that Stalin's invocation of class-warfare — to interpret collectivisation as a "spontaneous movement of the rural poor" — was fraudulent; but they tolerate it, on well-known " youcan't-make-omelettes " principles.

In 1914, the Russian nobles held about 10 per cent of the arable land; and much of that was rented out to peasants on archaic principles, such as the otrabotha, a manorial labour-rent. The only large landowner besides the peasantry was the State, with about a fifth of the arable land. The peasants held most of the remainder, and occupied virtually all the land — owning, for instance, 95 per cent of the livestock. They usually lived in a commune, though in some places the communes were more of a formality than anything else. Mr Shanin shows that Stolypin misunderstood the situation as regards the kulaks. Kulaks were not emergent capitalists. Far from being a challenge to the commune, they were the biggest single piece of evidence of its continuing vitality. A kulak was quite simply a man with a large family: by the communal arrangements, he thereby took over the land which he could farm with his large family, and which he needed to feed it. Communes existed to provide an administrative mechanism for these change-overs to happen. Yet when a kulak's family grew up, they would want their share of the land; and the kulak's lands would then be re-partitioned according to the new needs. There was a quite clear statistical correlation between size of plot and size of family — Knipovitch, for Kaluga province, showed that, where a household of three persons would sow no land, one of twelve would sow up to twelve hectares.

Capital accumulation was the same story. Shcherbina showed that, where a three-member household would save 2.35 rubles per head p.a., an eight-number one would save nearly ten per head. But as the family grew up, it became independent and required the splitting-up of land. Conversely, when poor families grew, they demanded more land. Consequently, there was an immense circulation of land within kulak to bednyak (poor peasant) status in the space of a life-time. In Vyaz'ma, for instance, less than half of the households sowing no land in 1884 were still sowing the commune, and men often dropped from no land in 1900. Similarly, only a fifth of the peasants sowing over ten hectares in 1884 were still sowing that amount twelve years later. Khryashcheva showed, for Epifan, that nearly two-thirds of the rich households were partitioned and 56 per cent of the households between nine and fifteen hectares. Stolypin tried, in effect, to give kulak holdings some permanency — a policy opposed, not only by other peasants, but also by the kulaks' own families. The kulaks themselves were often not enthusiastic — as the figures show; and a surprising number of kulaks opting out of communes were actually worse off as a result. Reputable economists were baffled by all this. Kondratev, confronted with the evidence of " biological " redistribution, said that this could not be a normal occurrence. But it was.

Mr Shanin's conclusions will affect the standard view of Russian economic and social history in the Revolutionary period. The 1917 agrarian revolution, expropriating noble land, left the peasant household at best half an acre better-off. In, 1918 we are told — by received tradition —the kulaks' land was also expropriated. It was certainly true that peasants outside communes now re-joined them, usually voluntarily. It is also true, as Mr Shanin shows, that land was redistributed within communes in 1918. But it was not a masive revolutionary expropriation — it was a traditional redistribution, with some complicating factors, such as the return of soldiers and peasants who had previously gone to the towns. In any case, if kulaks were expropriated, would they not have gone counter-revolutionary? And yet there is no evidence of a kulak counterrevolution, although it would have found twenty million armed supporters. The Bolsheviks did face peasant risings. But Mr Shanin shows that, in the case of the biggest of them, Tambov, the peasants were more " levelled " than elsewhere, and the revolt was in any case not led by kulaks. The agrarian revolution is thus a myth. "No propaganda effort could, in the long run, make the peasants accept a townsman's picture of class-relations and class-warfare which contradicted everyday experience."

In other words, the peasant problem is "false cognition by the ruling elite in the light of its own ideology." The Soviet regime in the 1920s could not even decide who was, and was not, a kulak. Conversely, it could not discover an exploited rural proletariat. The census figures put 2,200,000 people in this category. Mr Shanin has no difficulty in showing that 25 per cent of these were employed in State farms, 35 per cent were communal shepherds, and 33 per cent at least were youths under seventeen engaged in temporary employment — rather as if students working casually were to be classed proletarian. This left a very small percentage of the rural population as workers exploited by kulaks, and suggests that both categories, in their " received" version, are meaningless. Mr Shanin has performed a 'service of the greatest value. He has cleared the way for new research and new concepts. Maybe he ought to have dealt more thoroughly with economic issues; maybe, also, he would have done well to consider the influence of religion on peasant ways. But he has not killed his subject, and leaves as many questions open as he answers. He also demonstrates, with finality, that handing peasant problems over to Stalin was like giving a clock to a monkey.

Norman Stone is Director of Studies in History at Jesus College, Cambridge.