Kropotkin: The 1905 Revolution in Russia, Part Two

Peter Kropotkin at his desk

This is the second part of Kropotkin’s essay, The Revolution in Russia, first published in the Nineteenth Century, Vol. 58, No. 346, in December 1905. In Part One (see previous post), Kropotkin discusses how the January 1905, “Bloody Sunday,” massacre of hundreds of peaceful demonstrators at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg led to a wave of mass strikes in Russian occupied Poland. In Part Two he discusses the peasant uprisings that were spreading across the Russian empire around the same time. This was seen as vindication of the anarchist view, rejected by the Marxists, that the peasantry had a significant role to play in the coming social revolution, a position that Bakunin had advocated during the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War in his pamphlet, Letters to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis (Selection 28 in Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE-1939)).

The 1905 Russian Revolution

The 1905 Russian Revolution, Part Two

In the meantime the peasant uprisings, which had already begun a couple of years ago, were continuing all over Russia, showing, as is usually the case with peasant uprisings, a recrudescence at the beginning of the winter and a falling off at the time when the crops have to be taken in. They now took serious proportions in the Baltic provinces, in Poland, and Lithuania, in the central provinces of Chernigov, Orel, Kursk, and Tula, on the middle Volga, and especially in western Transcaucasia. There were weeks when the Russian papers would record every day from ten to twenty cases of peasant uprisings. Then, during crop time, there was a falling off in these numbers, but now that the main field work is over, the peasant revolts are beginning with a renewed force. In all these uprisings the peasants display a most wonderful unity of action, a striking calmness, and remarkable organizing capacities, in most cases their demands are even very moderate. They begin by holding a solemn assembly of the mir (“village community”); then they ask the priest to sing a Te Deum for the success of the enterprise; they elect as their delegates the wealthiest men of the village, and they proceed with their carts to the landlord’s grain stores. There they take exactly what they need for keeping alive till the next crop, or they take the necessary fuel from the landlord’s wood, and if no resistance has been offered they take nothing else, and return to their houses in the same orderly way, or else they come to the landlord and signify to him that unless he agrees to rent all his land to the village community at some price—usually a fair price—nobody will be allowed to rent his land or work for him as a hired labourer, and that the best he can do is therefore to leave the village. In other places, if the landlord has been a good neighbour, they offer to buy all his land on the responsibility of the commune, for the price which land, sold in a lump, can fetch in that neighbourhood or alternatively they offer such a yearly rent; or, if he intends to cultivate the land himself, they are ready to work at a fair price, slightly above the now current prices. But rack-renting [extortionate rents], renting to middlemen, or renting to other villages, in order to force his nearest neighbours to work at lower wages—all this must be given up forever.

As to the Caucasus, the peasants of Guria (western portion of Georgia) proceeded even in a more radical way. They refused to work for the landlords, sent away all the authorities, and, nominating their own judges, they organized such independent village communities, embodying a whole territory, as the old cantons of Schwyz, Uri, and Unterwalden represented for several centuries in succession.

Zarnisty Magazine 1906

All these facts point in one direction. Rural Russia will not be pacified so long as some substantial move has not been made toward land nationalization. The theoreticians of the mercantile school of economists may discuss this question with no end of argument, coming to no solution at all; but the peasants are evidently decided not to wait any more. They see that the landlords not only do not introduce improved systems of agriculture on the lands which they own, but simply take advantage of the small size of the peasant allotments and the heavy taxes which the peasants have to pay, for imposing rack-rents, and very often the additional burden of a middleman, who sublets the land. And they seem to have made up their minds all over Russia in this way: “Let the government pay the landlords, if it be necessary, but we must have the land. We shall get out of it, under improved methods, much more than is obtained now by absentee landlords, whose main income is derived from the civil and military service.”

It may therefore be taken as certain that such insignificant measures as the abandonment of arrears or a reduction of the redemption tax, which were promulgated by the tsar on the eighteenth of this month (November [1905]), will have no effect whatever upon the peasants. They know that, especially with a new famine in view, no arrears can be repaid. On the other hand, it is the unanimous testimony of all those who know the peasants that the general spirit—the mentalité, as the French would say—of the peasant nowadays is totally changed. He realizes that while the world has moved he has remained at the mercy of the same uriadnik (“village constable”) and the same district chief, and that at any moment, for the mere exposition of his griefs, he can be treated as a rebel, flogged to death in the teeth of all laws, or shot down by the Cossacks. Therefore he will not be lulled into obedience by sham reforms or mere promises. This is the impression of all those who know the peasants from intercourse with them, and this is also what appears both from the official peasant congress which was held last summer, and from the unofficial congresses organized by revolutionary socialists in more than one hundred villages of eastern Russia. Both have expressed the same views: “We want the land, and we shall have it.”

Peter Kropotkin, November 1905

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