[Marxism] Re: Brenner's response (the Bolsheviks and the peasantry)

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Fri Dec 3 03:06:48 MST 2004

My first version had to many uncompleted sentences to be clear, so I
have edited it.

I feel duty bound (although I suspect that Robert Brenner's views on the
rise of capitalism are off, and that the political conclusions that seem
to flow from it are, I suspect, even more off) that I think he is on to
something that has been gnawing at my brain for many years (including
when I was in the SWP). I have always found the argument that the
peasant bourgeoisie was the main enemy coming out of the NEP, and I
always suspected that this was somewhat hyped.

One option that the Bolsheviks, including Trotsky and including Lenin
until very late in the game,  never seem to have considered popssible
was a genuinely non-administrative approach to the peasant class.
Trotsky had always assumed that the peasants would overthrow the
socialist revolution if the international revolution did not come to
their aid.  Lenin argued that you
could not have the socialist revolution because the peasants were the
"revolutionary bourgeoisie" of the bourgeois-democratic revolution and
the workers were not ready to win a struggle against that bourgeoisie.
That bourgeoisie had to divide along class lines to make the socialist
revolution possible.  This, as I read it, was the counterline
theoretically, although as far as the "what to do next" standard of
Cannon, which I still adhere to, "Two Tactics" had it all over "Results
and Prospects." 

But I think that Lenin exaggerated the degree to which the peasants had
really become a post-feudal class, exaggerated the degree of class
polarization organic among them. Both Lenin and Trotsky assumed, without
sufficient proof I think, that the possibility of the peasantry as a
class going over to socialism without passing through a complete
capitalist stage of development -- complete with final division into
capitalists and proletarians -- was an outdated speculation. They both,
as far as I know, insisted that the peasantry had become basically a
bourgeois class  pure and simple. (

 He assumed and so did Trotsky that the letters of Marx
on the Russian peasantry to Zasulich, in which he raised this
possibility in reference to the Russian peasantry if the international
revolution came to its aid (before the Russian working class existed.
The tendency was to assume without enough concrete knowledge of the
peasantry I suspect, that this possibility was ruled out by the
development of capitalism that produced the working class, the Stolypin
reforms in the countryside etc. But was this true? I have come to
strongly suspect not.

I recommend Moshe Lewin's book, "Political Undercurrents in Soviet
Economic Debates," which convinced me that the centrality of the peasant
bourgeoisie had been somewhat hyped in the Soviet Union, and the
peasantry as a whole somewhat scapegoated (this is not to deny
capitalist development and class polarization in the peasantry from the
beginning).  There was a tendency to carry the attack on the "rich
peasants" way beyond those who hire labor or even those who have more
advanced means of production (a horse, for instance, or even a cow).
Every peasant family that stuck its head above water (or, more
accurately, got close enough to the surface so that they could breathe
through a long straw) tended to be targeted in "poor peasant" campaigns
that seemed to assume that since only the poor peasantry could be an
ally of the workers, the peasantry of course must remain poor.  These
campaigns had a Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution air to them.  And
they took place at a time when the revolution could not supply teachers,
doctors, or even shoes to the peasants in general.  Under these
circumstances, the insistence on absolute equality is not healthy.

Yes, I was struck by the narrowly administrative character of
Preobazhensky's New Economics, and frankly the sinister meaning of
Primitive Socialist Accumulation, once you have read the chapters of
Marx on this subject.
Compare this to Che's approach to overcoming the law of value, or to
Castro's speeches on the peasantry. Castro, by the way, is the
outstanding theoretical-programmatic Marxist thinker of the Cuban
revolution on the alliance of workers and peasants. And when you look at
the history, 
Cuba represents almost a new ball game on this question. (Although
Castro built on Lenin -- as well as, of course, Marti et al).

I think Lenin's On Cooperation was an attempt to seek another road, more
in line with Marx's speculations on the possible evolution of the
peasantry (based of course on Marx's oft-forgotten idea that the
is capable of reason as well as superstition.) Unfortunately, Trotsky
did not counterpose this kind of approach to Stalin's attack on the
Peasantry.  Stalin's attack was partly based on the grain strikem which
posed a huge problem, and
partly as a SCAPEGOAT for failures of the regime and the collapse of its
ultra-NEPist and collaborationist tendencies at home and abroad.
Trotsky never considered the role of the 
administrative-workerist-pseudorevolutionary approach to the peasants as
a factor in the grain strike.

Trotsky did not get to a more correct line on this until 1930 and 31
when he began to stand with the peasant against its oppressors -- rather
late since full-scale catastrophe for the peasants (and workers) had
already ensued. It was in this period that he began to clearly reaffirm
and insist on the value of NEP with modifications, and to clearly oppose
its overthrow and replacement by, no less, "socialism."

I also think that Bukharin was less revolutionary by 1928, more
bureaucratic, and more a precursor of Khrushchev, Gorbachev and other
bureaucratic reformers of the coming decades, all of whom quietly looked
to him to some extent.  But a more correct line on the peasantry would
have enabled the Left Opposition to have a shot at winning the
revolutionary elements who were attracted to Bukharin's defense of the
peasant.  The workers vs. peasant thing was deadly for the revolution
from the beginning. That begins (I now suspect) with the assumption that
you could not
overturn capitalist property relations in industry without a civil war
in the peasantry -- an ideological presupposition which lenin and
Trotsky both held.  But what is the evidence aside from the split of the
Left SRs that it was true?

By the way, the Workers Opposition, so popular among anarchoid
semi-Bolshevik types, was even worse on the peasant question than either
Lenin, Trotsky, or Stalin.  Their positions had a true Pol Potist edge.
If ever a faction deserved to be banned at the beginning of the NEP (and
that of course is a very debatable question) they were it.

Yes, I think Cuba is more of a model in many respects today, but, as
Castro repeatedly notes, Cuba would not exist without the collossal
sacrifices that the Russian workers and peasants made for their
revolution from October 1917 through the Second World War. And Cuba
would not exist without the lessons of the Russian revolution.  Very
easy to criticize today -- after Cuba, with Venezuela underway, and all.

But I think that criticism, accompanied by a sense of history, is called
Fred Feldman

(By the way, I know I should ask this offlist, but is Bill Hutton the
Bill Hutton I knew in the Oakland-Berkeley branch from 1970-72?)

By the way, just so as not to be too agreeable, I think Lenin and 
virtually all of the Bolsheviks were more or less completely--and 
disastrously--wrong about the peasantry, as in the position you briefly 
describe below.  They believed that capitalism was developing in the 
Russian countryside due to the impact of trade, and that the peasantry 
was differentiating itself into capitalists and proletarians (Adam Smith

again).  It was on this basis, that they failed, more or less 
completely, to understand the nature of the agrarian and eventually 
political crisis of the later 1920s in the Soviet. It was on this basis 
that they entertained the quite erroneous notion that the development of

industry would bring part of the peasantry toward capitalism, leading 
incipiently capitalist kulaks to develop agriculture to support the 

It was on this basis also that many of them supported 
Preobrazhensky's misconceived idea of socialist primitive 
accumulation--the idea that the socialist towns could exploit the 
peasant cum capitalist countryside through unequal exchange...not 
realizing that the peasants simply would withhold their grain, since 
they weren't capitalists and had no intention of being such...and were 
not dependent on the market, so were shielded from capitalist 
competition and the need to trade. It was on this basis too that they 
tried to pursue a political program in the countryside of allying with 
the poor peasants/proletarians versus the kulaks, which of course 
managed to united the whole of the peasantry, rich and poor, against 

Partly on this basis, Trotsky completely misunderstood the 
political alignments of the late 1920s, thinking that Bukharin 
represented protocapitalism, i.e. the differentiating peasantry and was 
therefore on the right, while Trotsky's own forces represented the 
proletariat on the left, with Stalin wavering in the center.  When 
Stalin moved "left" to destroy the peasantry and force 
industrialization, Trotsky's followers naturally followed, since it was 
Trotsky's general position that had been adopted by Stalin. It was here 
Trotsky's own statism, inability to see/theorize the emerging 
statocratic character of Stalin's administration, that left him high and

dry...and indeed  entirely unable to represent what working class 
resistance was developing in the late 1920s.

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